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Employers start sending workers shopping for health coverage

AP Health Writer

Instead of offering one or more options, some companies are turning health insurance shopping over to employees.

A federal rule change last year stoked this new approach. It allows employers to reimburse workers for coverage they bought without paying a tax penalty.

The concept sends employees to individual insurance markets where they can find more choices for coverage. It also protects employers from huge annual cost spikes. But it’s a big change for workers who are used to having their employer give them benefit choices every year.

This new approach — known as an Individual Coverage Health Reimbursement Arrangement or ICHRA — started with coverage plans for this year. More workers will likely see them offered this fall during their company’s annual sign-up window for 2021 coverage.

Benefits experts say the idea is drawing interest from employers, but they expect the option to grow slowly over the next few years.

“We are seeing much more cautious adoption of it,” said Alan Silver, senior director of health and benefits for the consulting firm Willis Towers Watson.

Here’s how it works: Employees pick a plan that works best for them, sometimes with help from an outside company hired by their employer. Then the employer reimburses them, at least partially, for the cost.

Benefits consultants say the accounts can be attractive to companies that have been hammered by insurance costs or want to offer benefits to attract new employees but haven’t been able to afford them.

Element Designs, with about 65 employees, switched earlier this year. The Charlotte, North Carolina, custom door maker was facing a 60% price hike for its old coverage plan. That would have followed a 50% increase from the year before.

The company couldn’t absorb those hikes. But human resources manager Kymberlee Hernandez said they also couldn’t tell employees in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Hey guys, by the way, we’re not going to have health care this year.”

“This was definitely a good alternative for us,” she said.

The company is reimbursing employees $500 per month for their coverage and another $300 if they have dependents.

Employee Olivia Banks found the new approach daunting at first. But a company hired by her employer, Take Command Health, helped Banks figure out which plans would include her doctors and what sort of expenses she could handle.

“The benefit on the other side is a plan that’s tailored more towards you,” said the account manager.

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