Employers Overhaul Health Benefits

This fall, tens of thousands of U.S. workers will learn that they’re getting their health benefits next year in a radical new way: Their employers will give them a fixed sum of money and let them choose their plan from an online marketplace.

Among the companies already doing so are Sears Holdings SHLD +14.41% andDarden Restaurants DRI +0.39% .

More health-industry players are launching online employer marketplaces, known as private exchanges, that let employers offer their workers a range of choices to shop from. Companies now jumping in include benefits-consulting firms like Xerox’s Buck Consultants, Marsh & McLennanMMC +1.31% Mercer and Towers Watson,TW +6.17% as well as insurance brokerages such as Willis Group HoldingsWSH +0.41% and Digital Insurance.

Insurers are creating their own versions, with Aetna AET -0.34% planning to launch a “proprietary” marketplace model next year. WellPoint WLP -0.62% already has one, while UnitedHealth Group‘s UNH +0.26% Optum health-services arm owns an exchange operator.

The private exchanges for employers are separate from the government-operated marketplaces that are being created under the federal health law.

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