Real estate company Keller Williams is one of the latest big firms to announce that it's offering associates access to a private health care exchange. Keller Williams' independently owned and operated offices employ about 89,000 real estate agents - many of whom don't have health insurance - across the country.

The private exchange will be offered through ConnectedHealth, starting Dec. 1 and will replace the company's mini-medical plans.

The move to the private exchange was first discussed about two years ago when "everything solidified with the Affordable Care Act and we knew the pay-or-play mandate was going to be in effect," says Leslie Vander Gheynst, director of human resources, Keller Williams Realty International. "So the conversation really started around this mandate and making sure there was an option for our associates."

The exchange is being rolled out to the firm's Realtors through a series of webinars led by Keller Williams' broker, Willis, as well as through an email campaign, ads on the firm's intranet and leadership training.

The company also talked about the exchange at its recent convention, which was attended by about 8,000 agents. "A lot of them stopped by the [wellness] booth and you would not believe the relief our associates felt by just having an option, to know there would be something they could go to," says Vander Gheynst.

Real estate is a competitive industry, and the company is launching the exchange in conjunction with a broader wellness program. "The more they can do to influence and provide value to these agents, all the better," says Joe Donlan, president of ConnectedHealth, which runs the Smart Choices exchange. "It's a common theme we're seeing."

Donlan says the last few months have seen greater interest in private exchanges, particularly for those employers with large part-time populations. "We've seen more interest from employers that have that large 1099 population. It is a trend we're seeing we think will accelerate over the course of 2014 and 2015," he says.


Other private exchanges

Consulting firm Mercer, meanwhile, says 52 employers will be part of its private exchange platforms on Jan. 1, 2014. Thirty-three employers will offer Mercer Marketplace for active employees and an additional 19 organizations will provide retiree solutions. Including dependents, some 200,000 individuals are expected to be covered in the Mercer exchange on Jan. 1.

Mercer is still in active discussions with other companies looking to add its exchange offerings by mid-year 2014 or the beginning of 2015.

Ranging in size from 100 to 30,000 employees, the 52 employers include Petco, Kinder Morgan and the Addison Group. Mercer president and CEO Julio A. Portalatin says employees can expect a range of medical, dental, life, disability and other voluntary benefit choices.

Eric Grossman, exchange business leader for Mercer's health and benefits business, says three-quarters of Mercer's exchange clients have fewer than 2,000 employees. "We are finding particular interest among midsized employers. ... Adoption is taking place in a wide range of businesses," he says.

Aon Hewitt also announced recently it will be offering health benefits to more than 330,000 U.S. employees this open enrollment period. A total of 18 employers, including Walgreen, Sears Holdings and Darden Restaurants, will use the company's private exchange.

Associate Editor Tristan Lejeune contributed to this story.




Public exchange conflicts come into sharper focus

By David Albertson

The polarizing effects of the Affordable Care Act have become even sharper since the launch of public health insurance purchasing exchanges on Oct. 1. Those effects were highlighted by a panel of experts convened by EBN shortly after the exchanges' debut.

One envisioned conflict stems from lack of employer compliance with employee notification requirements. These could arise if, for example, an employee without coverage receives medical treatment from a provider who might then be on the hook for uncompensated care. If that provider discovers the employee was not properly notified about the exchanges and his coverage options, it could be the makings of a lawsuit.

"We believe that, over time, providers holding bad debt will join with employees and that this will become a civil court issue," said Randy Spicer, health services consultant for the National Restaurant Association.

Clearly, many questions remain about the ultimate success or failure of public exchanges. But Rodger Bayne, president of Benefit Indemnity Corporation, pointed out it's much too early to judge. "There were bound to be glitches at first, but we will learn much more in coming months as demand plateaus," he said.

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