First, employers would push harder to control their own costs by shifting more financial responsibility to workers.
Data from Mercer's employer survey suggests that a typical large employer can save nearly $1,800 per worker by replacing traditional preferred provider plans with a high-deductible policy combined with a health care account. "That is very compelling," said Watts.
It won't stop there. Many employers are convinced they have to go beyond haggling over money, and also pay attention to the health of their workers.
"As important as it is to manage the cost of medical services and products, and eliminate wasteful utilization, there has been a strong recognition that ultimately healthier populations cost less," said Dr. Ian Chuang, medical director at the Lockton Companies, advisers to many medium-size employers. His firm touts programs that encourage employees to shed pounds, get active or quit smoking.
Employer health plans were already allowed to use economic incentives to promote wellness, and the overhaul law loosened some limits.
A Towers Watson survey found that 35 percent of large employers are currently using penalties or rewards to discourage smoking, for example, and another 17 percent plan to do so next year. The average penalty ranges from $10 to $80 a month, but one large retailer hits smokers who pick its most generous health plans with a surcharge of $178 a month, more than $2,100 a year.
Overall, one of the most intriguing employer experiments involves setting up private health insurance exchanges, markets such as the health care law envisions in each state. Major consulting firms such as Mercer and Aon Hewitt are developing exchanges for employers.
As under the health care law, the idea is that competition among insurers and cost-conscious decisions by employees will help keep spending in check. Aon Hewitt's exchange would open next January, with as many as 19 companies participating, and some 600,000 employees and dependents.
"The concept of an exchange does not belong to Obamacare," said Ken Sperling, managing the project for Aon Hewitt. "We're borrowing a concept that was central to the health care law and bringing it into the private sector. Whether the law survives or not, the concept is still valid."