When it comes to benefits packages, both employees and employers know that one size does not fit all. What is right for a younger, entry-level worker might not make sense for an empty nester with seniority. A flexible benefits package based on employees' unique situations and income levels is essential to retaining top talent.
As open enrollment approaches, employees will be hitting the exchanges once more to select their health care packages and other benefits for the coming year. Here's a look at how some employers are using private exchanges to give employees more options, as well as to better manage benefits-related expenses. [See Related Story: How to Build a Great Employee Benefits Package]
What is a private benefits exchange?
Private exchanges are essentially marketplaces where employees can shop online for health insurance and other benefits, including dental, vision and life insurance. Employers first access the private exchange and choose from a variety of carriers the benefits they want to offer, as well as set their specified contribution levels for each offered product. Employees then access the exchange to peruse the products offered by their employer and select the ones that suit their lifestyles and financial needs.
"Think of these exchanges as a store, and each of the types of benefits are aisles," Steven A. Nyce, director of the Willis Towers Watson Research and Innovation Center, told Business News Daily. "As an employer, you 'own' the store and have the ability to decide what products you want to include. So, say, one aisle is medical, [an employee] would have a number of products to choose from in that aisle."
Depending on what products the employer has selected to offer, employees have their pick of the entire "store." Those employees who need pet insurance can select it, while those who desire supplemental medical coverage, such as hospital indemnity, are able to as well. The aim is to give customizable control to the individual who is selecting the plan while also stabilizing costs to the employer.
"By facilitating a shift to a defined contribution … private exchanges offer the potential for cost stability to employers, while giving greater choice to employees, albeit with greater financial risk as well," a 2014 report issued by The Kaiser Foundation reads. "Because the employer defines up front the amount paid to the employee, employers have greater control over how much they spend on health benefits."
Health benefit costs are a huge consideration for employers. According to a 2015 report by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, health care spending grew by $102 billion between 2012 and 2013. The rapidly increasing costs of health care in the U.S., coupled with employer obligations under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), means keeping health benefits expenses stable is a growing challenge.
How are employees using private benefits exchanges?
To better understand the emerging private exchange marketplace, the Private Exchange Research Council (PERC) partnered with private exchange Liazon to see how consumers were operating within that exchange, and found that employers are offering more products over time and employees are purchasing more as well.
The PERC report found that, on average, employers offer 14 products on their customized exchanges. Medical, dental and vision plans are the most commonly offered by employers: The average company's benefits package on Liazon includes six medical plans, three dental products and four vision packages from which to choose. Many companies also offer life insurance, legal plans, identity protection, disability benefits and pet insurance.
From 2013 through 2015, employees on average increased the number of products they purchased for their individualized plan from 3.6 to 4.4. A number of factors could be responsible, Nyce said, from the growth of the exchanges to more comfortability among those who have participated in the exchanges for several years.
"We're seeing an expansion of benefits and a blurring of the lines traditionally seen between retirement and health care, life insurance and disability," Nyce said. "Those were traditionally in their own silos, but we're seeing them come together now in a more holistic approach. It provides employees with a unique experience, and they can use [these benefits options] as a platform to grow to a broader set of benefits in the future."