To date, adoption of private benefit exchanges by employers has been modest, but Holley Maher, partner at St. Louis-area brokerage MRCT, sees them as a highly relevant solution. And, despite issues Healthcare.gov has caused for brokers and consumers alike, the site is changing the health care landscape, says Maher, whose company operates its Smart Benefits Marketplace using bswift technology.

What is the structure of your exchange? What makes it different?

One thing about our exchange that is unique is that we go down to as few as 10 employees. We have done a good job of one-on-one education and using the tools that bswift has in their system. Our one-on-one education compliments those bswift tools well, so at the end of the day the employees enrolled in our plan end up understanding their benefits and being more engaged.

Also see: "The Private Benefit Exchange Index."

How do you recruit clients?

It is a combination of marketing, referrals and just networking and sales. We try to send out relevant marketing communications that are educational in nature. The average person in business making widgets does not have their finger on the pulse of insurance and benefits. From a marketing prospective, we have to step in the shoes of HR, the controller and the business owner to speak to them in terms and issues that are relevant. The more engaged the prospective clients get with downloading videos or downloading whitepapers, the better the prospect they are.

What is your relationship with brokers?

We have 10 internal brokers and a really good relationship with the brokerage community here in St. Louis. We have partnered with a number of brokers over the course of 20 years and brokers are good partners for us. For a lot of the agencies that we partner with, maybe they do 401(k) business or primarily they might do more commercial insurance. Some brokers are thinking about retirement and don’t have all the right compliance tools we have, the technology tools that we have, so they see us as a good partner. We have the tools, but also we build long-term relationships with clients and it is just a nice partnership.

How did 2015 open enrollment compare to 2014? How is 2016 playing out?

A lot of employers are staying the course right now because of grandfathering. Generally, the market is pretty stagnant. What we did as a response to that is we created a more flexible model. At the start, we were pretty strict with standard packages, but we are now exploring plans outside those packages. That is creating a busy fourth quarter and we expect a lot more activity in 2016 because of the way we changed our model to respond to this stagnant market.

Also see: "9 questions to ask when considering a benefits marketplace platform."

Where do you see private exchanges fitting into health care moving forward?

I still believe they are a highly relevant solution. … Healthcare.gov, as much as it is a challenge for our industry and consumers, is changing the paradigm for the way people purchase benefits. Giving consumers more options is going to be relevant.

The whole concept of defined contribution and allowing and really changing the way we communicate about benefits is really important. When you have a defined contribution model, it provides the pricing options and also provides cost options for people. With the workforce being as diverse as it is now, employers need other ways to manage all the compliance regulations. And people need to have better tools; you need to equip people with the right kind of tools to be better consumers.

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