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While Healthcare.gov Struggles, A Different Story Plays Out On The Private Exchanges

All eyes are on the hullaballoo created by the challenges at Healthcare.gov and several of the states’ public insurance exchanges.  Yet all the while, like in a magic show, attention has been diverted from the real action going on elsewhere.  Quietly and in a relatively drama-free way, the private health insurance exchanges are busily taking over the world of insurance and, in my opinion, portend a radical set of changes in how our health insurance system operates.

Several years back, a number of companies began building private health insurance exchanges to initially help companies offload the incredible burden of retiree benefits.  Companies such as Extend Health (now owned by Towers Watson), Senior Educators (now owned by Aon), and several others provided a way for large employers to get themselves out of the business (and balance sheet liability) of providing group benefits for retirees, instead providing them with money to purchase their own individual health policies through then small, now large companies.  The private exchanges went about the business of building websites that work, call centers that buzz and a wide array of insurance product offerings at various prices.  Now, several years later, hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of individuals are out there shopping their little hearts out, choosing their own plans, and dealing with the consequences of high deductibles and the like.

These various private exchanges are now poised and ready to begin serving active employees in 2014 as guaranteed issue (the requirement that all can be insured and no one turned away) goes into effect as a result of the Affordable Care Act.  And lest you think this is a small marketplace, you are wrong.  In 2008 there were about 120 million total employed workers and just over half of these worked for companies of 500 employees and above (39 million worked for companies with 5000 employees or more).  In other words, we are talking about nearly half of American adults and that doesn’t even include the dependents they bring along into their insurance plan.

Interestingly, such large US employers as Walgreens and Petco and DineEquity (parent company of Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar® and IHOP® restaurants) are all-in on the private exchange program, committing to transfer all of their employees from group plans to the exchange to purchase individual plans come January 2014.  The exchanges of Towers, Aon, Mercer, Buck Consultants and a plethora of others are alive and well and open for business at exactly the time when employers are trying to figure out how fast they can reasonably get out of the middle of health insurance administration and run for the hills.

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