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On private health exchange, choice and control drive satisfaction

Data on the use of the first large private health exchange for U.S. employers -- providing an online platform for active employees to purchase employer-subsidized coverage -- reveal that enrollees chose the health plan they felt offered the best value for themselves and their family and that they liked being able to select among multiple carriers.

The multi-insurer corporate exchange, created by consultancy Aon Hewitt, began operating in the fall of 2012 for plan year 2013. Subsequently, a number of other large HR consultancies, including Towers Watson and Mercer, have created their own private exchanges for plan year 2014 or announced plans to do so.

Unlike the public, government-run exchanges scheduled to launch this fall for plan year 2014, private exchanges do not provide a conduit for the government to subsidize the purchase of policies by low-income employees. Instead, private exchanges let employers provide eligible workers with an employer subsidy to purchases policies that comply with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

The new model is sometimes referred to as defined contribution health care, comparable to employer contributions to 401(k) retirement plans, in which employers monetize their commitment in the form of a defined contribution, rather than a defined benefit. In the case of private health exchanges, employers give each eligible employee fixed amounts for either individual or family coverage, regardless of the plan the employee chooses within those tiers. Workers add their own salary-deferred contributions in an amount they select and choose among differently priced plans from competing health insurers, taking into consideration factors such as varying premiums, deductibles and networks. If employees select a high-deductible plan that is health savings account (HSA)-eligible, for instance, they can determine how much extra money from their paycheck they would like to go into the HSA.

“During the 2013 annual enrollment period, last fall, more than 100,000 U.S. employees successfully enrolled in health benefits through Aon Hewitt’s Corporate Health Exchange,” said Ken Sperling, Aon Hewitt national health exchange strategy leader, at the 2013 MetLife Benefits Symposium on March 18, 2013, in Washington, D.C. Clients who shifted their health benefits to this exchange include Darden Restaurants (whose chains include Olive Garden and Red Lobster) and Sears Holdings Corp.

By offering coverage through a private exchange, “employers are not stepping away, but they are stepping back,” said Sperling. Under the private exchange model, employers no longer manage plan design and insurer relationships, including claims appeals, as those matters are outsourced to the exchange. As with other outsourced vendors, however, HR remains responsible for overseeing the employer’s ongoing relationship with the exchange provider.

Competition among carriers

Competition among insurance carriers on the exchange lowers the cost for offered plans, Sperling said. In addition, “because enrollees from multiple companies participate, the exchange has greater leverage to negotiate lower plan costs for coverage that is comparable to what employees received through the traditional single-employer plan-enrollment model,” which in most cases will lower employers’ overall health care expenses, even after fees paid to the exchange are factored in, he explained.

“The exchange uses a fully insured model to create competition at a consumer level, and whenever markets are competitive, consumers benefit,” said Sperling. “This is not about shifting cost to employees; it’s about reducing the top line cost of health care. Employers can then redirect these cost savings to enhance companywide programs to increase employee health, well-being and engagement.”

Options for employees

During enrollment employees can sort and filter benefits options by price, carrier and plan. “When given more options, employees become empowered to make individual choices based on value, provider network, price and health status,” said Sperling. “Employees are not limited to a predetermined plan and insurance company.”

During the enrollment period for 2013 the Aon Hewitt exchange offered a range of health, dental and vision benefits options from multiple national and regional carriers, including UnitedHealthcare, Kaiser Permanente, HealthNet, Health Care Service Corp. (operating Blue Cross Plans in several states) and Florida’s Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plan.

“Aon Hewitt’s corporate exchange allowed us to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to providing health benefits,” said Danielle Kirgan, senior vice president of total rewards and shared services at Darden Restaurants, who joined Sperling at the symposium. “This year we were able to offer a broader array of healthcare choices than we have in the past, giving our employees the flexibility to choose the level of coverage that best meets their needs at a price they could afford.”

Participating insurance providers highlighted their plans’ unique features and capabilities to help employees differentiate between coverage options, Kirgan said. The exchange’s support team provided employees with guidance throughout the enrollment process. 

Enrollment by plan type

According to Aon Hewitt’s post-enrollment analysis for plan year 2013:

• 39% of employees with access to policies through the exchange enrolled in a consumer-driven health plan (CDHP) -- a high-deductible plan with an HSA or health reimbursement arrangement (HRA). In 2012, before their employers shifted to the newly launched exchange, only 12% of these employees were enrolled in a CDHP option.

• Conversely, the number of exchange-eligible employees who enrolled in a traditional preferred provider organization (PPO) plan decreased from 70% in 2012 to 47% in 2013. However, while a significant number of employees migrated toward CDHPs, when given the choice, a fair amount chose to increase their health coverage by purchasing a plan with a lower deductible at a higher premium.

• For 2013, 32% of employees chose a plan similar in type to their current coverage (e.g., PPO to PPO), while 26% of employees “opted up” and chose to pay more for broader coverage.

• Forty-two percent of employees chose to reduce their regular payroll contributions and select a less rich form of coverage.

According to Sperling, “Employees who want richer coverage are free to purchase it -- and they do. Health care is personal, and people have different needs. This model lets employees decide which plan and which insurance company is best for them, and they are free to modify that choice on an annual basis.”

Among other findings reported by Aon Hewitt, almost 80% of exchange enrollees said they were confident they chose the health plan that offered the best value for them and their family, and almost all (93%) indicated they liked being able to select among multiple carriers.

Increased use of decision-support tools

Employees who enrolled in their benefits through the exchange model used online decision-support tools, including health plan comparisons and cost estimators, significantly more than  the 10 million workers who completed a traditional enrollment through Aon Hewitt, Sperling noted. Specifically:

• 68% of exchange enrollees used a health plan comparison tool, while just 48% of employees who completed a traditional enrollment did so.

• 57% of exchange enrollees used a provider search tool, compared with only 14% of those enrolled in a traditional plan.

Challenges ahead

Kirgan noted that one issue likely to cause confusion among employees is how the new private exchanges (which are not eligible for government-subsidized coverage) will differ from the new public exchanges (which are). The private exchanges have adopted the “bronze, silver, gold and platinum” plan terminology of the public exchanges, denoting higher premiums for richer coverage, which adds to the blurring of differences.

Kirgan said that Darden Restaurants intends to help its employees who work fewer than 30 hours per week “get connected with coverage through state- or federal-government-run public exchanges,” which will require clear communication about which employees are eligible for which type of exchange.

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

©2013 SHRM. All rights reserved.

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