North Bay brokers form 'task force' to lower health insurance costs

NORTH BAY -- A group of top health insurance brokers in the North Bay are putting aside their competitive natures to form a nonprofit organization that they say will focus exclusively on lowering health insurance costs for mid-sized employers in the region.

Brokers from some -- though not all -- of the North Bay's most influential insurance agencies are creating the Task Force on Lowering Health Insurance Costs, modeled on a similar effort for Fortune 500 companies that doesn't exist for the mid-sized employers throughout the state.

"The purpose is to create a nonprofit entity to help employers reduce their health care costs," said Keith McNeil, a broker with The SSM Group in Novato who was instrumental in forming the Task Force.

From fewer carriers to a return to managed care under the Affordable Care Act, much has changed in both the delivery of health care and health insurance over the past 25 years. But little has changed in how brokers and employers negotiate with health plans and providers, brokers said. 

"Other than (health savings accounts), it's pretty much the same," Mr. McNeil said, referring to consumer-driven plans that employers have increasingly relied upon to keep costs down. "It hasn't changed a lot."

Instead of seeking solutions with one employer at a time, Mr. McNeil and other brokers said that by joining forces via a nonprofit, mid-sized employers could potentially benefit from sharing best practices, advocating as a group with health plans and potentially even combine purchasing power.

And now more than ever, with the looming implementation of the ObamaCare, smaller and mid-sized employers especially need a unified voice and an outlet to search for solutions, brokers said.

"Rather than wait for the state or the feds, this can be a local effort," said Bud Martin, of Wells Fargo Insurance Services in Petaluma. 

Although the Obama Administration recently delayed so-called "pay-to-play," the mandate requiring employers with 50 or more workers to provide health insurance or face a penalty, Mr. Martin said employers, brokers and health plans alike should seek common solutions in bending the cost curve on health insurance costs.

"We can't assume health care reform will do everything," Mr. Martin said.

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