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Small business health care cooperative looks to form in western Wisconsin

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Affordable health care for small business owners and their employees in western Wisconsin is the goal of a group looking to form a health care cooperative.

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A steering committee is now asking small business owners from 18 western Wisconsin counties to complete a confidential survey on health benefits and costs.

"We need the surveys completed so we can gauge the level of interest so we can determine whether we should move forward with this or not," said Steve Healy, who chairs the steering committee.

"I am expecting it to be high," he added.

The survey can be completed online at www.unitedscv.com/chchealth.htm and the deadline is Aug. 8.

The proposed health care cooperative is called Cooperative Health Choices of Western Wisconsin and will cover 18 counties including Pierce, St. Croix, Polk, Pepin, Dunn, Chippewa and Eau Claire.

The benefit of the cooperative is that more members allows for greater purchasing health care coverage purchasing power.

"Coverage for some of the small groups has severe limitations," Healy said. "It is more likely a health insurer will recognize a group for say 3,400 than a group of five."

Legislation authored by Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, allowed for the formation of health care cooperatives in Wisconsin and she hosted a meeting in April on health care cooperatives.

"We found there was lots of interest at that time," said Harsdorf.

The CHC group formed after the workshop.

As an example of the potential of health care cooperatives in the state, Harsdorf pointed to the Farmer's Health Cooperative of Wisconsin formed in April 2007.

"Our growth has been phenomenal," said Melissa Duffy, a FHC spokeswoman. "We have over 2,300 insured, more than double what we projected."

CHC is also following the lead of Green Bay-based Healthy Lifestyles, another small business health care cooperative formed in January 2007 and now has 172 employers and 3,100 insured onboard.

Harsdorf also believes that having a regional health care co-op will make this area more competitive.

"When I travel through the district, affordable health care coverage is one of the top concerns of small businesses," she said.

"I see having a regional health care cooperative as a recruiting tool to help bring employers and small businesses into the area," Harsdorf added.

Healy said that the group is being assisted by both the St. Croix and Pierce county economic development corporations and has received financial assistance from all economic development corporations in the region and the regional economic development group Momentum West.

Along with helping to purchase health care coverage, CHC will focus on promoting wellness and healthy behavior.

The group will be meeting again at 8 a.m. July 31 at the St. Croix County University of Wisconsin-Extension Agricultural Service and Education Center located at 1960 Eighth Ave., Suite 140 in Baldwin.

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