At the same time that the public health insurance exchanges are getting off to a shaky start, private health exchanges operated by insurance brokerages say they're attracting major U.S. employers with tens of thousands of workers as clients.


Mercer LLC, which has a major operations center in Urbandale, announced today that it has signed up 52 employers to offer coverage through its private exchange options. Thirty-three of those employers have enrolled in Mercer Marketplace, among them national retailer Petco Animal Supplies Inc. and pipeline company Kinder Morgan. Nineteen employers, including St. Louis Metro Transit, have chosen Mercer's Medicare exchange to cover their retirees.   


As for Iowa companies, "I don't have any specific company names to share with you, but I can say at this time that we have had meaningful conversations with employers who view this as a likely strategy in the near future," said Jim Green, principal of Mercer's Urbandale operations center.


In an email, Green said he believes Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield's decision not to participate in Mercer's or other brokers' private exchanges has limited employers' options and is a factor in many Iowa companies taking a "wait and see" approach.


"We don't see this as a Blues-centric issue either, as we do have participation from Anthem BCBS, the Florida Blues, Illinois Blues, and a few others currently," he said. "We are also very pleased to include Aetna, Cigna, UnitedHealthcare and Delta Dental of Iowa among our valued partners today, and have every confidence that the carrier list will continue to expand to further enhance the value for Iowa employers."


As private exchanges continue to evolve, Wellmark must carefully evaluate the distribution channels it chooses for its products, said Traci McBee, a Wellmark spokesperson. 


"Because of the substantial variability between various exchange models, we are carefully evaluating the merits of which models will be the most beneficial to consumers," she said. "Wellmark will continue to evaluate the value of these different exchanges through the lens of what is in the best interest of our members."  


Other private exchanges are also reporting significant interest. In September, Aon PLC announced that Walgreen Co., the largest U.S. drugstore chain, had joined its private exchange, bringing 160,000 additional workers who will buy company-subsidized health coverage through the private initiative, Bloomberg Businessweek reported. Walgreen joined Sears Holdings Corp. and Darden Restaurants Inc. in a private exchange run by Aon that includes 18 companies and 600,000 people.


Mercer anticipates that its private exchanges will cover 200,000 employees, retirees and family members next year. The 52 employers range in size from 100 to 30,000 employees and represent more than 15 industries.


The company said it continues to be in active discussions with other companies interested in making its exchange offerings available at midyear 2014 or for Jan. 1, 2015.


Read more in this related Business Record article about private health exchange initiatives in Iowa.