Taking a Pulse in the Big Easy

There seems to be little question that the Affordable Care Act and Exchanges were top of mind for those benefit managers attending this year’s Benefits Forum and Expo in New Orleans.

That’s certainly what many told me during the breaks when I asked what brought them to the Big Easy, besides the gumbo and jambalaya. Further evidence could be found at the well-attended sessions addressing those topics.

One such workshop was “Mercer’s View on Benefits Exchanges: What’s the Buzz,” which surveyed the Private Exchange landscape (including Mercer’s own Marketplace offering) and the different approaches available to employers. The session was presented by Mercer Partner Chris Covill, who shared why he thought Private Exchanges are likely to continue to gain traction.

In his presentation, Covill cited one-stop shopping and the ability to offer a menu of options for employees as significant selling points. Employers also view “decision-support tools” as a crucial component of any Exchange, he said, adding that companies “want to make sure their employees are making the right decisions.”

179273064Covill said he couldn’t share specific client names or how many employers have signed onto Mercer Marketplace, but indicated they number in the dozens, including two “large, jumbo employers.” (As you might expect, Private Exchanges will be among the topics covered at HRE’s Health and Benefits Leadership Conference next March in Las Vegas.)

ACA and Exchanges, of course, weren’t the only issues on the agendas of those attending the Benefits Forum. More than a few of the attendees I spoke to said they were there to primarily scout out fresh ideas on the wellness front.

To be sure, companies continue to crave meaningful ways to effect and sustain behavioral change on this front. (Hopefully, attendees will return home with a few ideas.)

At one session, titled “Building a Culture of Wellness Without Breaking the Bank,” I was reminded that wellness programs don’t necessarily have to cost employers a king’s ransom.

That workshop focused on Brookings, Ore.-based C&K Market Inc., a 2,100-employee grocery chain that was recognized as one of the healthiest employers based in Oregon in 2012. Beginning a few years ago, C&K started to build out a full menu of wellness options for all of its employees (as well as their spouses and dependents), including programs focused on weight loss, walking, smoking sensation, financial assistance and screenings.

In all, C&K spends around $310,000 a year for its wellness initiatives, many of which are done internally, according to Kate Wilkinson, general counsel and director of human resources for C&K. Its team-based weight-loss program, called Biggest C&K Loser, utilized sponsor-donated incentives aimed at getting people enthused about the program. Its cost: just around $10,000.