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, The Wall Street Journal reported today.

Around 90,000 Sears employees and some 45,000 Darden employees will be eligible to purchase insurance through the exchange, which will be 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. The Journal states that neither Sears nor Darden disclosed the amount employees would receive, although Darden said it would increase the amount as health care costs rise.

Aon Hewitt describes its corporate exchange as a full-service model that includes a suite of consumer-based decision support tools “that turns selecting health benefits into a retail shopping experience.” The firm has been using its exchange to administer health insurance benefits for its own employees and families.

Aon Hewitt explains that employees in its exchange will have access to a wide range of benefits experts and advisors, including its “advocacy support” team, to answer questions and provide guidance during enrollment and throughout the year.

"There are examples in every industry, including iTunes, and Orbitz, where the introduction of competition on a retail, consumer level has driven down prices and made the industry more efficient," said Ken Sperling, Aon Hewitt's national health exchange strategy leader. "The Aon Hewitt Corporate Exchange is a viable alternative for companies searching for solutions that can reduce cost, transfer risk to insurers, empower employees to make smarter health care choices and create a more sustainable health care benefit program."

Research reports show there is growing interest among both employers and employees in corporate exchanges. Aon Hewitt's 2012 Corporate Health Exchange survey of more than 562 employers shows more than 40 percent of employers expect to participate in a health care exchange in the next three-to-five years. Another study conducted by J.D. Power and Associates in March 2012 revealed that approximately 41 percent of employer-insured health plan members would use a private health insurance exchange approach if it were available.

While industry consultants say most employers are still taking a wait-and-see attitude toward private insurance exchanges, more announcements of private exchange deals are expected soon. The Journal reports that WellPoint Inc. intends to introduce an exchange product next year called Anthem Health Marketplace. WellPoint says it is close to signing up more than 30 midsize and large employers for early next year.

Ed Kaplan, the national health practice leader for Segal, anticipates that other employers in the retail and service sectors will follow Sears’ and Darden’s lead.

“Retail and food industry employees’ health care costs can be 25% to 30% of wages, which is why not many people in those industries have coverage,” he says. “They often can’t afford the insurance the employer may offer.”

The private exchanges are a way to close the gap, he explains, because competition among insurers in the exchange will keep premium costs down.

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