January 27, 2005 in Business

Health-care alternative promising

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review
 
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(Full-size photo)

An insurance program launched earlier this month by the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce gives small employers an opportunity to provide some life and medical coverage for their workers. Larger companies can plug it into their existing benefit plans.

And for Spokane’s hard-pressed health care providers, the Select Benefits plan could potentially reduce the number of patients arriving at their doors in need of treatment, but with no way to pay for it.

The Chamber estimates as many as 100,000 Spokane-area workers and family members could benefit from the program. The early response has been encouraging.

“We’ve got a lot of different reasons why people are interested in this product,” says Scott Jones, president of Fidelity Associates in Spokane. Fidelity sells the plan, a product of Symetra Life Insurance Co. Symetra was Safeco Life & Investments until purchased from Seattle-based Safeco last July.

Symetra Senior Vice President Scott Taylor says the company has sold something like Select Benefits since the late 1990s, but only recently started selling the plans through associations like the Chamber.

Businesses are asking Congress to expand the availability of association health plans to give small businesses the ability to purchase insurance in groups that would benefit from larger numbers of members. In Washington, D.C., and Olympia, they are seen as an alternative to a government- sponsored plan.

The primary selling point of Select Benefits is the low cost. An employer pays just $18.74 per month for the barebones “core” product, which pays $20 for a visit to a doctor’s office or clinic, $35 for services like X-rays. A $5,000 life and accidental death and disability policy on the employee is also included. Not much, but that’s without a deductible or co-pay. And the policy covers every member of the employee’s family.

The employer can buy slightly more comprehensive versions of that product, and employees can choose several add-ons — paid for out of their own pockets — that provide still richer benefits. The most expensive package costs $174.04 per month.

Jones stresses that the Symetra plans are not a substitute for the more comprehensive major medical plans, which explains the much lower cost. But Select Benefits can be used in conjunction with those plans, perhaps by raising deductibles and co-pays, and applying the savings to purchase of a Symetra product.

Taylor says many employers will make the plan available to part-time or seasonal workers. Likewise for those who cover only employees, not their families, with their major medical insurance.

He says other insurers are selling similar products, but Symetra still considers the market underserved. The company expects to expand its sales program, he says, and add features to the plans available now.

Chamber President Rich Hadley says the organization offered major medical plans to Chamber members in the past, but dropped those products as they became too expensive. The Chamber board, on which Fidelity’s Jones sits, revisited the issue about a year ago in response to member demand.

“It’s a retention tool to keep employees,” he says, and introduces employers to the insurance market. The Chamber will make the Symetra plan available to employees because its major medical coverage does not extend to family members.

Rocket Bakery co-founder Julia Postlewait says the Symetra plans may be a long-sought answer to how to insure employees in a business with high turnover. Rocket employs about 66 people at any one time.

Trying to make a major medical plan fit entailed so tightly restricting access, Postlewait says “You can hardly call it a benefit.

“This is the first time we’ve seen something that’s affordable.”

If the bakery decides to buy a Symetra plan, she hopes it can be in place by spring.

Not surprisingly, Fidelity’s Jones says health care providers are enthusiastic about the plans, not just because they see the chance of recovering some of their costs, but also because patients will be more likely to visit an office or clinic before their illness worsens.

After the program was announced, he says he says an official from a Chamber of Commerce in New York state called to ask about Select Benefits, an indication of how desperately businesses are seeking insurance alternatives. Spokane may have found one.

“My mission and the Chamber’s mission is to increase the number of insured in this community,” he says.


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