In a move that could herald a sea change in health benefits, Sears Holdings Corp. and Darden Restaurants, Inc. this year will begin allowing employees to purchase health insurance through a private insurance exchange.

Around 90,000 Sears employees and some 45,000 Darden employees will be eligible to purchase insurance through the exchange operated by Aon Hewitt. Starting Jan. 1, employees at the two companies will be given lump sums of money to use in choosing their medical plan and provider from the exchange. According to the Wall Street Journal, neither Sears nor Darden disclosed the amount employees would receive, although Darden said it would increase the amount as health care costs rise.

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