Gotham Gazette

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Bringing Insurance to Small Business

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn endorsed the creation of a citywide ferry service and an expansion of a small business insurance program in her State of the City address last week. Now advocates and stakeholders are weighing in, and - for the most part - appear to be praising the proposals.

At Cartridge World, a downtown Brooklyn firm that sells new and refurbished cartridges for photocopiers, printers and fax machines, the cost of health insurance for owner Geoff Wood’s three employees seemed sure t empty his pockets. When Wood initially looked into comprehensive health insurance plans, they exceeded $500 per employee per month.

Thanks to a health insurance program created for Kings County businesses by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, Wood was able to get more affordable coverage for his employees, saving him more than 50 percent in premium costs. This made his employees not only happier, but healthier. According to Wood, his employees “were less likely to leave because they had good health benefits.” For Cartridge World this translates into increased employee satisfaction and higher productivity.

In a recent survey conducted by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, an overwhelming majority of small businesses support universal healthcare and want to offer coverage to their employees.

The problem for owners like Wood and other Kings County businesses is that it can often be difficult to afford. But Brooklyn HealthWorks, the insurance program founded by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, can provide an interim solution as the nation debates how we can cover more workers - whether through mandates or a free-market based system or a combination thereof.

And soon, small businesses in other boroughs will be able to reap the benefits, including attracting and retaining qualified employees.

Beyond Brooklyn

Last week in her annual State of the City Address, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn proposed an expansion of Brooklyn HealthWorks into Manhattan and Queens. Quinn’s speech balanced a call for continued fiscal responsibility with initiatives to stimulate the local economy, protect affordability and support New Yorkers.

Under the speaker’s plan, the city would subsidize premiums for businesses in Queens and Manhattan. Based on Brooklyn’s experience with HealthWorks, upward of 600 new businesses are expected to enroll in Manhattan and as many as 300 businesses will enroll in Queens during the first year alone. This equals an additional 4,500 New Yorkers with employer-based coverage. Citywide expansion is expected to follow and will further increase the number of New Yorkers with health insurance coverage. Since Quinn’s address, Brooklyn HealthWorks has received inquiries from small business owners and brokers in Manhattan and Queens - all looking to learn more.

A History of Health

In 2004, with the help of the New York State Insurance Department, the chamber created Brooklyn HealthWorks, a private-label Healthy NY insurance product. Brooklyn HealthWorks allows eligible small businesses in Brooklyn to offer affordable health coverage to their employees and dependents at lower premium rates than other small group plans because of premium subsidies made available by the state. Brooklyn HealthWorks currently covers approximately 180 small businesses, including more than 850 employees and their dependents.

Brooklyn HealthWorks builds on the success of Healthy NY by offering a plan that eliminates hospital co-payments that run between $500 and $900 per occurrence for Healthy NY plans. Brooklyn HealthWorks also does not dictate how much an employer must contribute to premiums. For Healthy NY, businesses are required to contribute at least 50 percent of the cost of individual coverage. Finally, Brooklyn HealthWorks provides coverage to independent contractors (1099 employees) who work at least 20 hours per week at small businesses that also cover traditional (W-2) workers.

The same eligibility requirements will apply for an expanded HealthWorks program: A business must have a location in the participating borough with 2 to 50 employees and have not provided comprehensive health coverage during the last year (or have contributed less than $75 per employee per month). Additionally, 30 percent of the company’s employees seeking coverage must earn $36,500 or less annually. For businesses that qualify, healthcare savings can be reinvested into employee training programs, promotion and the creation of new partnerships with other local businesses—all of which stimulates economic growth.

HealthWorks operates in partnership with Group Health Incorporated. Businesses with access to HealthWorks coverage are able to obtain care at over 142,000 provider locations throughout the tri-state area, all without the need for a referral. Some of the benefits included in the plan are physician services, hospitalization, prescription drug coverage up to $3,000 annually, maternity care, emergency services, and diagnostic X-ray and laboratory services.

The Brooklyn-based program has changed and grown over the years, but because of permanent funding streams – secured with the assistance of Brooklyn legislative leaders such as Assemblymember Joseph Lentol and Senator Martin Golden – it continues to flourish. We are confident HealthWorks will continue to address the affordability of healthcare for small businesses in Brooklyn and beyond.

Carl Hum is president and chief executive officer of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.  

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