The individual health insurance market for years has been a resource for America's odd ducks - the 20-somethings needing coverage until they get their big breaks, the self-employed entrepreneurs or the early retirees biding time until Medicare kicks in.

That is changing, though, as employers have been forced to scrap their health benefits or make them so expensive that workers can't afford them. The number of Minnesotans covered by privately purchased health plans rose from 187,000 in 2002 to 235,000 in 2011.

An even greater increase is expected in 2014 with the launching of health insurance exchanges created by the 2010 federal reform law. Some employers may cancel their benefits and give workers cash sums to buy individual plans through the exchanges.

All of which explains the timing of HealthPartners' new Compass health plan on the individual market. The Bloomington-based insurer is hoping to offer an enticing health plan for the growing number of individually insured Minnesotans today and to build brand loyalty and identity by the time the insurance exchanges take effect.

"Ten years ago, the individual market was literally just individuals," said Scott Aebischer, senior vice president of product innovations. "That's clearly not what I see now."

The new plan replicates popular features from workplace benefit packages. Tops among them is a member assistance program that people can use for advice and counseling on everything from stress to relationship problems to financial crises.

While only 7 to 8 percent of members take advantage of existing workplace assistance programs managed by HealthPartners, they are nonetheless valuable sources, Aebischer said.

"If you don't need it, that's great," he said, "but there are people who couldn't imagine not having access to those types of services."

Expect to see more plans like Compass and hear more sales pitches as 2014 nears. • 612-673-7744