July 06--Local small businesses have another option for providing employee health insurance through a new health cooperative available through some chambers of commerce.
The Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce is one of about two dozen chambers around the state participating in the new plan, which local and state chamber officials said could save small businesses with fewer than 50 employees money on health insurance coverage for their employees.
"We're trying to make health insurance more affordable for our members," said Joseph Bevilaqua, president and CEO of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce. "We think it's an opportunity to assist members that have 50 or fewer employees."
The chamber previously offered health insurance plans for businesses up to nine employees, Bevilaqua said. The expanded plan was launched June 26 and is available to businesses that are members of participating chambers with more than 100 members, such as the Merrimack Valley chamber.
According to the Massachusetts Association of Chambers of Commerce Executives, the coop offers plans from Fallon Community Health Plan and Harvard Pilgrim for businesses in eastern and central Massachusetts. Businesses in Western Mass. buy from Health New England.
Employees of small businesses, and by extension their employers, pay 20 to 25 percent more for insurance than workers in larger companies partly because larger businesses have greater buying power and can negotiate better rates, said Tom O'Rourke, president of the Massachusetts Association of Chambers of Commerce Executives.
"We've tried to aggregate the small businesses together into one group and it gives us better buying power," he said.
O'Rourke said the co-op plans can save businesses between 3 and 5 percent on health insurance costs, though he hoped the costs will fall when more businesses sign up.
Massachusetts law requires businesses with 11 or more employees to offer health insurance, an expense many say dampens hiring by making each employee more expensive. Many businesses with up to 50 employees are eligible to purchase insurance plans through the state's Health Connector.
Bevilaqua said the chamber co-op will help local businesses with some of the costs of complying with state law.
"We think that if there's any negative impact from the legislation, we have this plan to help them," he said.
The state Division of Insurance certified the MACCE co-op in January, along with one through the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. Health co-ops were created by a 2010 law designed to begin tackling health care costs.
More than two dozen chambers of commerce in the state, including the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic-American Chamber of Commerce and the chambers serving Cape Ann and Greater Newburyport.
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