Wis. Launches First Health Insurance Cooperative

September 6, 2005

The first health insurance cooperative in the state of Wisconsin is set to be introduced this month to help small businesses, nonprofits and individuals negotiate affordable insurance plans.

Its mission is to organize the smaller groups into a large group with strong bargaining power.

Co-op Care of Southeastern Wisconsin is preparing to roll out its health insurance plans at the end of this month and start signing up members, said Randall Marking, president of Innovative Benefits Solutions Inc., a Milwaukee firm that designs employer benefits packages.

The cooperative is the first to be organized under legislation signed by Gov. Jim Doyle in December 2003 authorizing creation of five regional health care purchasing alliances in the state.

Aimed initially at farm families and small businesses, the member-owned regional health care co-ops eventually could serve the self-employed, employees of nonprofit groups, early retirees and others hard-pressed to pay premiums and deductibles typical of non-group health plans.

Last month, Doyle signed another bill into law that will allow as many heath care co-ops to be organized as needed to benefit more people and “increase competition so that consumers have more choices.”

Marking said there has been considerable interest in the cooperative.

The Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives is organizing a health care co-op in northwestern Wisconsin, in the Eau Claire area, aimed at providing farmers and small rural businesses affordable group health insurance plans.

Bill Oemichen, the federation’s president and chief executive, who pushed for enactment of the original legislation, said creation of the northwestern co-op is taking longer than expected but there is considerable interest among farmers.

“They’re seeing double-digit increases in premiums this year,” said Oemichen. “One guy had a 36 percent increase and, sadly, that appears to be pretty typical.”

Large companies can design their own health insurance plans, offering a choice to employees and negotiating the best rates from insurance and health care providers, Marking said.

“The small guy just doesn’t get to do that; they basically have to buy something off the shelf,” said Marking, who also works with large companies in the area.

“We’re in the midst of a big change in health care, and the small to midsize employers will be able to participate to the same degree as larger employers,” Marking said.

Copyright 2005, Associated Press

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