Wednesday June 27, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- The Berkshire Chamber of Commerce can now offer its members the chance to participate in a purchasing cooperative designed to save small businesses money on annual health insurance costs.

The state Division of Insurance has given the Massachusetts Association of Commerce Exec utives, which includes the Berkshire Cham ber, permission to form the Chamber Health Coop, which is designed to make health insurance more affordable. The MACCE had allowed five member organizations to form pilot programs last January. The Berkshire Chamber is the only qualified association in Berkshire County that belongs to the MACCE.

By joining the Chamber Health Coop, Berkshire Cham ber members with two employees could save $450 a year on annual health insurance costs. Those with 20 workers could save $4,500 per year, and companies who employ 40 could save $9,000, said Berkshire Chamber President and CEO Michael Supranowicz.

"We're hoping to create enough of a pool where we can get some ex perienced rates going into next year," he said.

The Berk shire Cham ber defines small businesses as those with 10 or fewer em ployees. Some 900 of the chamber's 1,100 mem bers fall into that category.

Small businesses that be long to the chamber can enroll in the plan immediately, but the coverage doesn't begin until Aug. 1. The chamber's fiscal year is the same as the calendar year.

Health New England was given exclusive rights as the co-op plan's "provider of choice" for MACCE members located in the four counties of Western Massachu setts, Su pran owicz said. But those who enroll in the Chamber Health Coop will have five plans to choose from.

"So it's not a canned plan," Supranowicz said. "I want to make sure that people recognize that when you go to your broker they say this is not the only thing you can get with chamber insurance. Whichever program you decide is best for you, you're given a discount on."

The Western Massachusetts region received the biggest discount in the program's first round of funding.

"That's just the way it was bid out," Supranowicz said.

Supranowicz said the MACCE had spent the last three years advocating for legislation that would al low its organizations to pool mem bership in a health care buying pool, a measure that had been legislated out during the mid-1990s.

"We recognized that the small-group market was paying about 17 percent more for health in surance than a large employer," Supranowicz said. "A large employer with 400 or 500 employers can negotiate a pretty decent health insurance rate, but the small businesses were pretty much lumped into a small-business pool. They were always faced with having to pay a little more for the same type of coverage.

"Over the past four or five years, we kept receiving these double-digit increases in the cost of health insurance," he said. "Add on in Massa chusetts the new legislation which required companies with a certain amount of employees to have health insurance, and it just became fairly expensive."

"The commonwealth is pleased to support the Cham ber Health Coop through the MACCE," said Gov. Deval Patrick in a statement. "Small businesses are vital to our continued economic success here in the commonwealth, and we need more innovative programs like the co-op to reduce the high costs of health care that inhibit growth and development."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6224.
On Twitter: @tonydobrow