Small Business

Sam's Club to offer health insurance for business customers

A Sam's Club store in Peoria, Illinois.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As small-business owners prepare to comply with health-care rules that require employers offer health insurance, some businesses will have a new option for employees—Sam's Club.

The wholesale retailer—a division of Wal-Mart Stores—this week announced new services for small companies including a private health-care exchange for small-business owners and their workers. The health-care exchange will be offered in partnership with Aetna.

Another retailer, Costco Wholesale, rolled out its own private insurance exchange for individuals earlier this year.

But Sam's Club's health insurance coverage caters to entrepreneurs—Sam's Club's core customers. The idea is that business owners familiar with the discount wholesaler will turn to Sam's Club to meet health-care guidelines, rather than use state exchanges as offered under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Available in 18 states, Sam's Club business members with two or more employees will be able to access tools and resources from Aetna. Employers can offer a defined contribution plan, or plan that gives workers a flat, pre-tax contribution for a plan the employee selects.

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The Affordable Care Act's employer mandate kicks in this year for businesses with 100 or more full-time workers, and for those businesses with 50 to 99 workers in 2016. Business owners who choose not to offer workers coverage face fines of $2,000 per worker a year, for failing to comply.

Sam's, which says 70 percent of its customers with business memberships have five or fewer employees, is gambling that small businesses will choose familiarity over individual insurance brokers and the Small Business Health Options Program. Sometimes called SHOP exchanges, for short—they've received mixed reviews.

Sam's 644 stores serve about 600,000 small businesses, and the health insurance option is aimed at simplifying their customers' workload.

"Whether they lead start-ups or seasoned firms, America's small business owners are constantly strapped for time," said Rosalind Brewer, president and chief executive of Sam's Club, in a release.

Some data already suggests private health-care exchanges will enroll more people than state and federal exchanges over the next decade, according to Accenture, a management consulting firm. They estimate that in 2015, 9 million employees will be enrolled in private health-care exchanges for their employer benefits, with that number growing to 40 million by 2018.

"Sam's Club, I assume, is counting on familiarity and convenience to entice small-business members of Sam's Club to check out its Aetna coverage," said Devon Herrick, senior analyst at the National Center for Policy Analysis, a public policy research organization.

In a related move, Walmart in early October announced it would work with to help Walmart customers navigate insurance choices.

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But whether or not small companies flock to Sam's will depend on many factors including the range of plans Aetna offers, said Yevgeniy Feyman, a fellow and deputy director of the Center for Medical Progress.

"It's a smart move because in some cases small businesses were turned off by the SHOP exchanges," Feyman said. "If the Sam's exchange is more transparent and easier to figure out in terms of what plans cost, and Aetna has more than one type of plan offering that gives enough choice for employers and employees, it will be a good move," he said.