Sep 27, 2012 01:58 PM EDT

Sears Employee Benefits Package Drops Health Insurance Plan, Offers Cash

Department store giant Sears is planning to overhaul its health insurance plan. The company announced on Thursday a plan to replace the health insurance it offers its workers with cash bonuses.

Employees will be able to use the cash to buy insurance on the open market, rather than paying into an employer-operated health insurance plan.

The change takes place on Nov. 1, with employees switching over their coverage on Jan. 1 of next year. Sears has 90,000 employees to transition to the new system, a change the company hopes will save it substantial amounts of money.

While the federal insurance plan, commonly called Obamacare by both supporters and detractors, sets up insurance exchanges for workers who want to purchase their own insurance on the open market, Sears will be using exchanges still backed by employers.

Darden Restaurants will be following the lead of Sears. Darden owns the Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurant chains, and will funnel about 45,000 employees into the exchanges.

The switch mirrors the move from group pension plans to individual 401(k) savings plans. Not all employees have been happy with that earlier switch, as employer contributions and returns on investment were not always as high as promised. Some analysts worry that, in the same way, the cash payments made by Sears and Darden may not keep pace with rising health care costs.

For their part, the companies say that employees will pay approximately the same amount of money as they do now for the same amount of coverage. They say employees benefit because they can decide if they want to pay less for less coverage or more for more comprehensive coverage.

"It puts the choice in the employee's hands to buy up or buy down," said Danielle Kirgan, a senior vice president at Darden Restaurants, speaking to The Wall Street Journal.

"The corporate exchange creates a competitive market in health care benefits at the individual consumer level," Chris Braithwaite, a spokesperson for Sears, told the Chicago Sun-Times. "We're optimistic that competitive forces will drive efficiency and have a positive impact on quality and costs," Brathwaite said. "This is about increasing associate choice and options for their health care and leveraging a competitive market to continue to positively impact overall costs."

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