Chamber plans help businesses save money on health insurance

Filed under: Focus |

While state legislators determine ways to mitigate rising health care costs and alarmingly high numbers of uninsured, the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce is ahead of the game with a unique-to-Colorado innovative health care program that is saving its members valuable dollars in health insurance premiums.

In April, the Springs chamber launched a member health care package in collaboration with Piney Creek Digital Inc., a Denver high-tech company offering Internet-based solutions and tools that streamline the paperwork generated by insurance enrollments.

Piney Creek also developed an electronic employee benefits management system software program.

The combination of the electronic human resource and insurance programs and a defined health care package designed by chamber administrators in coordination with select local carriers and providers has catapulted the Bush administration push for association-based health care plans to new heights in Colorado.

It all started when Lena Farmer, owner of Insurance Connection International Inc., molded the idea after intercepting a clause in the Colorado Department of Insurance regulations that allows a bona fide association to offer health plans to its members.

And now, the Springs chamber has paved the way for other Colorado chambers, like the Metro Denver and Englewood chambers, to jump on board with the total package offerings on behalf of their members.

The other chambers must apply to the Colorado Division of Insurance to be designated as a bona fide association. As new chambers are added, the health plan enrollments increase and so does the plan’s purchasing power.

Piney Creek Digital is managing the overall health care package, and Farmer is overseeing the 80 certified insurance brokers who were trained to offer the Springs chamber health plans.

The health care package, referred to as the Piney Creek Digital System, offers a menu of options that include medical and dental care, long-term insurance coverage, vision, life insurance, disability and Piney Creek’s human resource and benefit management systems.

Farmer said the package is a “work in progress” as administrators work to bring on other health care benefits, such as wellness and fitness programs and alternative treatment therapies.

Currently there are two participating health carriers – Kaiser Permanente and Guardian Life. Both companies designed health plans specifically for chamber members. Chamber members can choose from Kaiser’s two chamber-specific health plans along with their market-ready plans and Guardian’s 10 health plans drafted for chamber members only.

The chamber has just introduced a self-funding insurance plan option as well through Denver-based CNIC Health Solutions, the state’s largest third-party health care administrator.

And Kaiser is planning to introduce a preferred provider organization option to chamber members. “Things have been working well with the Piney Creek program,” said Ray Hawkins, Kaiser’s network line of business manager. “And now we are introducing the PPO within the chamber product. It affords total choice for the employees and allows Kaiser to have a complete suite of products in the marketplace.”

In August, Kaiser began offering a PPO to Springs employers with 51 or more eligible enrollees. “It’s working well, and several groups have purchased the product,” Hawkins said. “It allows employers to offer our quality proven health maintenance product alongside a PPO product. The Springs is the only Colorado market where the PPO is offered.

This is the first time Kaiser has developed a PPO plan for a chamber-sponsored health care package.

Administrators are building the program right now and, dependent on the Colorado Department of Insurance, Hawkins said Kaiser is looking at a first-quarter release of the program details. “Everything is subject to the DOI regulations, but this is going to be a super plan,” he said.

“Every design plan has helped employers keep their costs down,” Farmer said. “This is a one-of-a-kind program. I am not aware where anyone else in the country has integrated technology with health care benefits. This program is a way to keep free enterprise while keeping costs down. The chamber is in it for the right reasons.”

The Springs chamber also has an exclusive agreement in El Paso County, which means that only Springs chamber members have access to the Piney Creek system.

And members are already realizing added benefits.

Megan Harmon, the regional president of Garden of the Gods Bank joined the Springs chamber last November. “The health plan has opened doors for us that weren’t available because we have a couple of branches in rural Colorado where insurance plans were not offered, and now we can offer them in our rural branches,” Harmon said.

“And the plan we did accept has provided us with a cost savings of 29 percent from the previous plan with the same or better benefits.”

Simpich Dolls has been a Springs west side retail icon since 1952. General Manager Neal Zandonella said the company joined the chamber to get on the health care plan. “We also agree with the idea of small businesses banding together to gain purchasing power leverage,” Zandonella said. “The basic concept makes sense. We are happy with the plan, and we’ve saved on our health care costs and also on our workmen’s compensation costs.”

It’s testimonials like these that energize Farmer and validate her belief in the chamber’s health care product. “We haven’t even started marketing the program,” she said. “And we plan to start employer seminars. This year will tell all.”

Meanwhile, Farmer is trying to establish a Springs health care task force to address other ways to remedy the health care dilemma. So far, the Piney Creek Digital System seems to be the leader in taking on the dilemma and fending off exorbitant health care costs for Colorado small businesses.

- Marylou.Doehrman@csbj.com