Health insurance programs available for small business owners

By Mickey Winfield: Freedom New Mexico

Many small businesses in Roosevelt and Curry counties are unable to provide employee health insurance because of the prohibitive cost and layers of administrative red tape, according to New Mexico Health Insurance Alliance officials.

The NMHIA is an alliance of independent health insurers commissioned by the state to serve as a broker between New Mexico small businesses (50 or less employees) and insurance providers.

“(Insuring employees) is typically fairly difficult,” said Joan Rutherford, NMHIA executive director. “We know that there are so many small businesses in New Mexico and just the affordability factor is (a problem) and then there’s the issue of managing the administrative part of it, so there’s challenges on all sides for insuring employees and a lot of people just don’t, unfortunately, get around to doing it.”

NMHIA was created in 1994, and since then, have covered about 38,000 individuals, according to Gail Rae, marketing director for the NMHIA. They currently have about 2,500 small businesses and 5,400 individuals enrolled, she said.

When a small business or individual contacts the NMHIA, the group refers the interested party to an insurance provider certified through the alliance.

Rae said an estimated 400,000 New Mexicans are without health insurance and around 50 percent of them would qualify, but don’t have coverage, “not because there aren’t enough programs but because they don’t know about the NMHIA programs.”

Rutherford said the process can be overwhelming for employers.

“The choices that are out there, the technicalities of benefit plans, the administration of it, I think get frustrated because they don’t know where to begin, so we really enjoy (helping them),” she said.

Dianna Thompson with the Small Business Development Center said employers should always examine opportunities to provide health plans to their employees. It keeps them competitive in the hiring market, increases morale, keeps employee turnover down.

“The more small businesses that have access to quality health insurance in the long run (will do better),” she said.

Tommy Heflin, who has been in the construction business in Portales for more than 23 years, said he is not able to provide insurance for his five employees.

“The way the economy is right now, I couldn’t afford it (even) if it was real cheap,” Heflin said. “I’ve checked into it a time or two, but it was just way out of my league.”

One reason Heflin gave for not being able to afford a health plan is that he doesn’t pass on the rising costs of doing business to his customers.

Some of the benefits through NMHIA:

• There is no health screening or questionnaire

• Once insured, a person or business can not be canceled, even if the business closes

• Employers only need to have one employee

• Employers can choose the percentage they want to pay for workers coverage

• A social security number is not required and residency is not verified