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Employers welcome private health insurance exchanges as cost-cutting tools

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MINNEAPOLIS — Private health insurance exchanges are enabling employers to dampen rising costs for benefits they provide to employees and changing benefits professionals' view of their roles.

Pamela Sande, Boston-based vice president of total rewards and human resources services at The Mentor Network, said the organization that focuses on services for the disabled, families and the elderly briefly considered dropping employee health coverage because of rising costs before its recent switch to a private exchange run by New York-based Towers Watson & Co.

“Before the exchange, we thought about exiting altogether,” Ms. Sande said last week during World At Work's Total Rewards 2015 Conference & Exhibition in Minneapolis. “We also considered building our own exchange and putting together multiple carriers to try and get deep discounts, but the effort ... would have taken us multiple years and required us to staff up to get there. The exchange has already done that kind of work.”

Thomas Foley, Chicago-based director of employee benefits at building materials manufacturer USG Corp., said tools that are part of the Towers Watson exchange, which USG uses for retiree health benefits, help users better understand and select the plan that best meets their needs.

“The advisory services are very important for us to make this transition as easy as possible for our retirees,” Mr. Foley said. “That's why we went with a private exchange.”

The exchange “has helped bring the cost per employee down,” Ms. Sande said, without specifying precise amounts.

Thomas Sondergeld, Deerfield, Illinois-based vice president of benefits and mobility at Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., said using the private exchange run by Aon Hewitt, a unit of London-based Aon P.L.C., has helped the drug store giant, which has 250,000 U.S. employees, “reset” its benefit cost trend.

“Because we have moved to a private exchange, we have helped contribute to the bottom line of the organization about $100 million,” Mr. Sondergeld said. “That's a lot of money, and usually benefit changes can't have that big of a contribution.”

Nonetheless, he said a private exchange is not a “silver bullet” to stem rising health care costs and users' experience may change as the exchanges tweak features and terms in the rapidly evolving market.

“It's an immature model,” he said.

“It doesn't matter which private exchange that you are on today, they ... are adjusting things left and right.”

Yet, Mr. Sondergeld said he remains excited about the private exchange model because it has helped him transform the pharmacy chain's human resources department.

Freed from much of health plan design duties, benefits professionals now can spend more time addressing the causes of employee illness and improving mitigation efforts, such as wellness programs, he said.

“A private exchange is really a type of outsourcing,” Mr. Sondergeld said. “In going to a fully insured private exchange, it totally releases you from all strategy about plan design and worrying about whether to direct employees from one hospital to another.”