As Towers Watson & Co. and Willis Group Holdings Plc head to the altar for an all-stock merger valued at $18 billion, their respective private exchanges could command the roles of best man and bridesmaid.

Combining Towers Watson’s large clients in OneExchange with Willis’ midsize clients in the Willis Advantage presents “a more formidable” presence, observes Paul Fronstin, director of the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s Health Research and Education Program, who closely follows developments in the emerging online marketplace. “They can serve clients across the spectrum and have invested quite a bit in the technology to do so.”

The unique strengths and market expertise of these two consultancies are highly complementary and will serve to accelerate and enhance their current health care exchange growth strategy, according to one industry insider who asked not to be named. He says the driving force will be bringing Towers Watson’s OneExchange offering to Willis’ middle-market clients.

Also see: Why the Willis, Towers Watson merger won’t be the last

A Willis spokesman who also asked not to be named agrees with this assessment and anticipates “no effect on current private exchange clients of either company” in the short-term, particularly as they continue to operate independently until the merger closes. He says that’s expected to be around year-end, subject to necessary approvals. 

Fronstin references Towers Watson’s acquisition of Liazon and Extend Health to leverage its presence in the private exchange market with the advent of new technology, small groups and retirees. Willis also has sought to expand its reach and emphasize specialized risks, according to a Bloomberg report.

This strategy fits a larger trend. “Everyone is getting bigger on the health plan side,” Fronstin says, citing as examples, Anthem, Humana, Cigna and Aetna. “If you want to have leverage with the health plans, you’ve got to get bigger and maybe this is one way to do that, although the private exchanges are a pretty small segment of the business of these companies.”

Bruce Shutan is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

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