The national conversation on exchanges has reached a new milestone this year – It just got real for a lot of employers.

And while the news is focused on public exchanges and whether employers will drop coverage, inside companies there are a lot of open-ended questions, starting with,

How? What’s the right path?

The answers employers are looking for are different than what consumers need. Employers have to get under the hood and kick the tires. They can’t afford to find out down the road that their employees and businesses have a need that their exchange is not equipped to deal with.

For most large, high-performing employers who provide health benefits today, the exchange option does not mean letting their employees seek coverage solo on the public exchanges. It involves moving to a new model of managing health benefits – one where employees take a more active role for themselves and one where the employer’s role is also evolving.

When employers interact with exchanges, they need everything consumers need – and a lot more:

  • A proven, end-to-end technology foundation – There’s a lot of new code being written right now. Most large, sophisticated employers do not want their employees to be quality assurance testers for a new system. An exchange with a history of sound technology and a track-record of success stands out from the crowd.
  • Reports for managing health benefits, population by population – When working with an exchange, employers need to be able to track their employee populations, active and retired. Exchanges must offer a sophisticated suite of business intelligence tools to let employers see how their people are faring so they can continue to execute proactive health benefit strategies.
  • Data to manage and workforce health and wellness – High-performing wellness programs are getting more and more recognition as ways to influence population health and contain costs. Employers who have group plans or who self-insure need to manage their health benefits strategically.
  • Benefit advisors to manage the questions their in-house HR departments cannot – An exchange needs enough expertise on staff and a sophisticated customer management system to answer the questions that HR cannot. Without an adequate advisory component – including knowledgeable, licensed benefit advisors – employers could risk a flood of questions and concerns from worried employees.
  • Individual tracking capabilities that synch with eligibility for federal subsidies – Access to subsidies is a very important to evaluating how employees will fare. It’s not an easy metric to track, as it could depend on criteria like household income, which can vary week to week.
  • Funds and claims management tools – Most large employers are looking to exchanges to let them fund greater choice and value for employees – not to end funding but to make it sustainable.
  • A great interface – Last but not least, an exchange should have a great user interface that helps consumers crunch a lot of data into practical chunks and provides effective decision support tools.

We put the web element last because that’s the first place people tend to go, and it really is the tip of the iceberg: As you can see, an exchange is a lot more than a website.

We advise employers to get under the hood of an exchange. Kick the tires by checking out analytics, service features and management tools.

An exchange needs to be a lot more than a pretty interface, because there’s no latitude for buyers’ remorse down the road.

Visit Extend Health to use the ExtendExchange™ platform – the nation’s largest private Medicare insurance exchange.