Firm to pay for workers’ doctor visits in small-business project

By Jonathan Maze, Charleston Post and Courier

Published October 3, 2005

Small businesses may have trouble paying for our health insurance, but they certainly could afford a few doctor visits.

That’s the theory behind a project being undertaken by the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce and the South Carolina Primary Health Care Association. Last month, they announced that an employer in Columbia, Mid-Carolina Steel & Recycling, is willing to serve as the first test subject.

The plan is a throwback to the days before employer-based coverage, when companies would pay for doctor visits for their workers.

In this case, Mid-Carolina entered into agreements with two nonprofit health centers, eau Claire Cooperative Health Centers and Richland Community Health Center, to provide primary and preventive medical care to 25 of MId-Carolina’s workers and their families at rates based on the families’ income.

The employee will pay a $10 co-payment. Mid-Carolina will take care of the rest. The deal includes doctor visits and prescription drugs purchased at the centers.

“We’re excited about this,” said Frank Knapp, president of the Small Business Chamber. “It really offers an alternative to a small-business person who can’t afford health insurance but wants to provide employees with health care.”

Knapp noted that 85 percent to 90 percent of what most people need is regular primary care.

Big companies struggle with health care costs, but small companies struggle the most. Nationwide, health benefit costs increased 9.2 percent in 2005, but firms with fewer than 25 workers saw premiums grow 11.8 percent.

Not surprisingly, small firms are more likely to abandon the benefit altogether. Only 59 percent of small businesses do provide coverage, a figure that has been slowly but steadily dropping in recent years.

Knapp said the new effort was born out of frustration with the failure of the state to help out.

“We haven’t been able to get any traction from the General Assembly,” he said. “I’ve been working on this since 2001. For years we’ve been trying to figure out how to address the crisis of health insurance costs, and we’re not getting anywhere.”

Mid-Carolina actually does have a health insurance plan that it buys for some of its office and management employees who might not work there without it. It doesn’t pay for that coverage for most of its 48 workers, however.

Those employees have access, but many are entry-level sorters of scrap metal making $9 an hour. Fred Seidenberg, the company’s president, said providing coverage to everybody would be too costly.

“Every employee who starts here, new employees, knows we don’t offer health insurance,” Seidenberg said.

Seidenberg decided to sign on with the pilot project to I’ve his employees some kind of benefit. “It should help us,” he said. “It should help morale. They’ll feel like they’ve got some preventive health care. I don’t see a lot of negatives.”

Nevertheless, it is a pilot project. Seidenberg wants to give the plan two to three months to see if it works.

So, too, does Knapp, who hopes the project does work and can be adopted by small businesses around the state. “We’re very optimistic that this will be the test that will demonstrate that this works,” he said.

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