Bravo Offers Insurance Help for Small Businesses

Does Washington have the answer to health care reform or does an Arkansas law passed in 2001 provide small-business owners and their employees a better choice?

Bravo Inc. is a health insurance purchasing group, or HIPG, created last November by the Arkansas Society of Association Executives to provide health benefits plans for association members and their employer members. It has some high hurdles that employers must clear, but those that do may find the program advantageous.

Dennis Jungmeyer, president of the Arkansas Automobile Dealers Association, is also president of Bravo.

The genesis of Bravo began about a year and a half ago as Jungmeyer looked into health insurance alternatives for the auto dealers. Because Jungmeyer was wary of self-insurance, Stephens Insurance LLC told him about health insurance purchasing groups, a sort of cooperative purchasing agreement that "creates the same purchasing power that they're trying to create in Washington," Jungmeyer said.

Numerous states have similar plans to help small-business employers struggling for ways to provide or maintain health insurance benefits for their workers.

The plan allows small businesses to pool their purchasing power in an effort to get better rates from insurers and reduce likely future rate increases by spreading the health risk over a larger pool.

Arkansas passed the Small Employer Health Insurance Purchasing Group Act creating the HIPGs in 2001. But it was 2005 before the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce established the first HIPG, called the Chamber Alliance Program. The Legislature also amended the act in 2005 to increase the number of employees a business can have from 99 to 199. According to the act, employers in the purchasing pool are required to pay at least 50 percent of each employee's premium for individual coverage.

After looking at the possibilities, Jungmeyer began to see that the best vehicle through which to set up the HIPG was the Arkansas Society of Association Executives. Bravo Inc. is a subsidiary of ASAE.

Mitchell Williams Selig Gates & Woodyard PLLC developed the plan, which is regulated by the Arkansas Insurance Department.

QualChoice of Arkansas Inc. is the carrier, responsible for plan development and design. Depending on the size of the business, there are some 75 different plan options available.

ASAE has 150 associations in its membership. That means Bravo has the potential for 30,000 employers and 500,000 employees in the state to participate, Jungmeyer said.

So far, 25 associations have signed on with Bravo, and six more are considering it. Jungmeyer said since Bravo could not officially begin until Jan. 1 of this year, it missed the opportunity when many of the ASAE members decided on their insurance plans.

Bravo has been holding informational meetings all over the state recently to market its benefits.

Employers must maintain fewer than 199 eligible employees and must agree not to obtain or sponsor any other health benefits plan on behalf of any eligible employees and their dependents.

Employers must be in good standing with their member associations, and those member associations must be in good standing with ASAE to be eligible for participation.

Participating associations must have paid the onetime $250 participation fee for the association employer members to have access to Bravo. QualChoice will pay participating associations $2 per employee per month as a reward for their participation.

Although Bravo is partnered with Stephens Insurance, other independent insurance agents can also sell Bravo plans to their clients.

Other non-HIPG plans will be available through Stephens Insurance, such as dental/vision coverage (Delta Dental) and life/disability coverage (Unum).

To enjoy the maximum pricing benefits, Bravo requires employers to pay more of the employees' premiums than the minimum required by state law, but not as much as it used to. As of Nov. 1, an employer must contribute 75 percent of the employee's monthly premium of the lowest priced plan offered. Previously, the requirement was 100 percent.

Another change is that 90 percent of eligible employees must be enrolled in the plan; it used to be 100 percent.

An employer who falls below the two required levels but still meets QualChoice's standard plan participation and contribution rules may still be eligible for Bravo.

Some of the highlights of the benefits include:

● Choice of deductibles ($500 up to $10,000) and out-of-pocket maximums.

● Multiple plans may be offered to one employer group.

● Pre-existing conditions waived with proof and acceptance of prior coverage.

● Choice of two prescription drug cards.

● Office visit co-pays of $20 for primary care and $35 for specialists