By Ben Werner, The State
Published August 13, 2006
The idea sounds simple enough — match small businesses with community health centers that can provide primary care to employees.
That was the brainstorm developed by Frank Knapp, president of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, and Lathran Woodard, executive director of the S.C. Primary Health Care Association.
With 19 private, nonprofit health center providers scattered around the state, Lathran said, small businesses in virtually every community could conceivably take part.
But before Knapp and Lathran could sell the idea to their members, they needed a trial run.
That’s where Mid-Carolina Steel & Recycling fit in. Ten months ago the Columbia-based business that creates decorative railings signed up to be the test case.
So far, said Fred Seidenberg, president of Mid-Carolina Steel, the program has been a success.
His company paid about $1,900 for the program — much less than what it would have paid for a traditional health insurance plan.
More importantly, Seidenberg said, he has not fielded any complaints from his employees.
“For me, no news is good news,” Seidenberg said. “If we don’t hear anything, that usually means there’s no problem.”
Now Knapp and Lathran want to repeat Mid-Carolina Steel’s success statewide. They are talking to other small-business owners around the state about joining the fledgling program.
“It looks real promising and can be replicated,” Lathran said.
So far, though, there have been no takers.
MORE EXPENSIVE PAST
Mid-Carolina Steel teamed up with Eau Claire Cooperative Health Center and Richland Community Health Center. The centers, which have a total of 17 locations, provide primary care to about 25 Mid-Carolina Steel employees and their families.
Employees pay a $10 co-payment and Mid-Carolina Steel picks up the rest of the cost.
Before taking part in the program, Mid-Carolina Steel did offer health insurance. But it was expensive, Seidenberg said, because his small number of workers caused the insurance industry to consider Mid-Carolina Steel to be a high-risk employer.
Mid-Carolina’s employees with families were getting hit with monthly insurance premiums that topped $600 — in many cases too expensive for workers earning $10 per hour.
With a small pool of employees, there is a greater risk one will have an expensive health problem. To cover its potential losses, Seidenberg said, insurance companies made the cost of coverage too high for many employees.
For Seidenberg, providing insurance for his employees was creating a double problem.
Some employees were just not using what was an already expensive health plan, while he was also risking losing valued employees to larger firms that can offer more affordable health benefits.
“For a small business, we feel like we can compete with other employers,” Seidenberg said.
Mid-Carolina Steel’s employees were hardly alone when faced with high health care costs.
Health industry officials estimate there are as many as 850,000 uninsured people in South Carolina — one out of every five residents — according to a state Department of Insurance-funded study.
These are people who qualify for government coverage, such as Medicare or Medicaid.
The program Mid-Carolina Steel is part of is not an insurance program, said Woodard. It has a hole: covering the cost of hospital stays and expensive treatments.
But Lathran and Knapp are trying to change that lack in coverage by searching for low-cost health insurance plans that can work in conjunction with the primary care system.“
By providing primary and preventative care to avoid emergency room use, we can show insurers that these are not high-risk people,” Lathran said.
Reach Werner at (803) 771-8509.