Why Private Exchanges Haven't Taken Off as Predicted
By Paul Rooney, CEBS, Managing Partner
EBS, a UBA Partner Firm
While the health care affordability crisis has become so significant, questions still linger—will private exchanges become a viable solution for employers and payers, and will they will continue to grow? Back in 2015, Accenture estimated that 40 million people would be enrolled in private exchange programs by 2018; the way we see this model’s growth today doesn’t speak to that. So, what is preventing them from taking off as they were initially predicted? We rounded up a few reasons why the private exchange model’s growth may be delayed, or coming to a halt.
They Are Not Easy to Deploy
There is a reason why customized benefits technology was the talk of the town over the last two years; it takes very little work up-front to customize your onboarding process. Alternatively, private exchange programs don’t hold the same reputation. The online platform selection, build, and test alone can get you three to six months into the weeds. Underwriting, which includes an analysis of the population’s demographics, family content, claims history, industry, and geographic location, will need to take place before obtaining plan pricing if you are a company of a certain size. Moreover, employee education can make up a significant time cost, as a lack of understanding and too many options can lead to an inevitable resistance to changing health plans. Using a broker, or an advisor, for this transition will prove a valuable asset should you choose to go this route.
A Lack of Education and a Relative Unfamiliarity Revolves Around Private Exchanges
Employers would rather spend their time running their businesses than understanding the distinctions between defined contribution and defined benefits models, let alone the true value proposition of private exchanges. With the ever-changing political landscape, employers are met with an additional challenge and are understandably concerned about the tax and legal implications of making these potential changes. They also worry that, because private exchanges are so new, they haven’t undergone proper testing to determine their ability to succeed, and early adoption of this model has yet to secure a favorable cost-benefit analysis that would encourage employers to convert to this new program.
They May Not Be Addressing All Key Employer and Payer Concerns
We see four key concerns stemming from employers and payers:
- Maintaining competitive benefits: Exceptional benefits have become a popular way for employers to differentiate themselves in recruiting and retaining top talent. What’s the irony? More options to choose from across providers and plans means employees lose access to group rates and can ultimately pay more, making certain benefits less. As millennials make up more of today’s workforce and continue to redefine the value they put behind benefits, many employers fear they’ll lose their competitive advantage with private exchanges when looking to recruit and retain new team members.
- Inexperienced private exchange administrators: Because many organizations have limited experience with private exchanges, they need an expert who can provide expertise and customer support for both them and their employees. Some administrators may not be up to snuff with what their employees need and expect.
- Margin compression: In the eyes of informed payers, multi-carrier exchanges not only commoditize health coverage, but perpetuate a concern that they could lead to higher fees. Furthermore, payers may have to go as far as pitching in for an individual brokerage commission on what was formerly a group sale.
- Disintermediation: Private exchanges essentially remove payer influence over employers. Bargaining power shifts from payers to employers and transfers a majority of the financial burden from these decisions back onto the payer.
It Potentially Serves as Only a Temporary Solution to Rising Health Care Costs
Although private exchanges help employers limit what they pay for health benefits, they have yet to be linked to controlling health care costs. Some experts argue that the increased bargaining power of employers forces insurers to be more competitive with their pricing, but there is a reduced incentive for employers to ask for those lower prices when providing multiple plans to payers. Instead, payers are left with the decision to educate themselves on the value of each plan. With premiums for family coverage continuing to rise year-over-year—faster than inflation, according to Forbes back in 2015—it seems private exchanges may only be a band-aid to an increasingly worrisome health care landscape.
Thus, at the end of it all, change is hard. Shifting payers’, employers’, and ultimately the market’s perspective on the projected long-term success of private exchanges will be difficult. But, if the market is essentially rejecting the model, shouldn’t we be paying attention?