Strength in numbers

Health care costs are rising at an alarming rate.

As a business, there’s only so much you can do to keep costs in check. One way is to become part of a larger group that will help you to get a better rate.

There are several ways to go about this, including joining a local chamber of commerce or an industry trade association. It’s a matter of balancing the benefits offered with the price you pay.

“There is a tremendous advantage to being part of a larger group,” says Tom Sudow, executive director of the Beachwood Chamber and chair of the Northern Ohio Area Chambers of Commerce, an alliance of chambers that was formed to give members access to lower-priced benefits. The group now represents 115 chambers and about 35,000 businesses.

“There are a couple of different plans to choose from, and members get the NOACC discount. It’s the same discount for every business. Depending on which insurance plan you choose, it’s roughly 3.5 to 4 percent savings, whether you come in with two people or 50.”

Businesses interested in the benefits can either use their existing broker or the chamber will recommend one. The plan is chosen, a price determined and the discount is applied.

“Health care costs are rising for all businesses,” says Sudow. “We try to work as a cooperative of 115 chambers to contain health care costs.”

COSE, the small business division of The Greater Cleveland Partnership, also focuses a great deal of its efforts on keeping health care costs lower for members as part of its overall focus of providing the resources businesses need to grow.

“What we run is a group purchasing program,” says Steve Millard, executive director of COSE. “We are administering the whole program. With COSE, you get the benefits of being in a group purchasing program.”

As a qualified health alliance, members pay no premium tax. COSE administers insurance to 220,000 people from 13,000 companies in Greater Cleveland.

Similar group programs are also usually available from industry associations and trade groups. But no matter which group you decided to go with, make sure you compare what you are getting for your money and join for the right reasons.

“Don’t join a chamber just so you can get the benefits,” says Sudow. “The benefits for us in NOACC are just the frosting on the cake. Use the membership to build your business. You should be able to get enough business out of your membership to move forward.”

Millard says insurance is just one reason to join COSE.

“You do get insurance when you are part of the program, but you get all the benefits of membership,” says Millard. “When you buy a package, you are getting not only insurance that is competitive but all the other services you need to be a successful business.”

Here are some key questions to ask when comparing group health plans.

* How many people are enrolled in the program (not just how many people are eligible)?

* How many companies are in the program?

* Is each business looked at individually or pooled with other member companies when determining a rate?

* Who handles the administration of the plan, and what will the paperwork burden of the business be?

* What programs, such as a wellness programs, are available to help you contain health care costs?

* How many different plans are offered, and what is the coverage of the physician and hospital networks?

* What is the total cost of the program, including administration, taxes and premium fees?

* Besides health insurance, what other member benefits are offered, and will you use them enough to justify the cost of membership? How to reach:,