More employers look to exchanges for health benefits

Employers, both big and small, are increasingly moving toward using health insurance exchanges to provide their workers' health benefits. The companies offer their employees a fixed amount of money so they can shop for and select a plan available from an online marketplace, reported The Wall Street Journal.

The move is yet another sign that the health insurance industry is moving toward a business-to-consumer market and means insurers may want to increase their presence on private exchanges so they can compete for these consumers' business.

Shifting workers to private exchanges gained momentum when Sears and Darden Restaurants made the move for their employees last year, FierceHealthPayer previously reported.

The exchanges are operated by private firms as well as insurers themselves. Private exchanges are currently available from consultants Mercer, Towers Watson and Aon Hewitt, plus insurers like WellPoint and UnitedHealth Group. Aetna plans to launch a "proprietary" exchange next year.

Private exchanges also are becoming more popular among larger companies. Bob Evans Farms, for example, said it's going to direct its roughly 34,000 employees working in its 560 restaurants across the country to a private exchange operated by benefits consulting firm Buck Consultants, the WSJ noted.

Moreover, a June report from Accenture found private exchanges will ultimately surpass federal- and state-run exchanges, with nearly 40 million people buying their health plans from private exchanges by 2018, topping the 31 million individuals forecasted to enroll in publicly-funded exchanges.

The move can save employers money because private exchange operators say workers often select less expensive plans than they previously had. In fact, for Liazon, which operates a private exchange with about 60,000 enrolled consumers, roughly 75 percent of employees chose cheaper plans, including ones with higher deductibles and out-of-pocket fees and limited networks.

To learn more:
- here's the Wall Street Journal video