With nearly a half-million San Diego County workers lacking health insurance, Sharp Health Plan and a local foundation are donating money to small businesses so they can buy coverage for their workers.
Sharp denies the joint venture with the San Diego-based Alliance Healthcare Foundation is a ploy to boost its already sizable HMO enrollment of small employers. It says its participation in the Financially Obtainable Coverage for Uninsured San Diegans, or FOCUS, is solely to show that businesses can boost worker productivity by offering them insurance.
Alliance, a community foundation that works to improve healthcare access, is offering $1.2 million to subsidize benefits to 150 area businesses that have fewer than 50 employees and do not cover employees. Firms would pay between $25 to $50 per month to cover an employee-about a fifth of the average HMO premium, according to Sharp officials.
Sharp Health Plan, an affiliate of San Diego-based hospital and clinic operator Sharp HealthCare, is spending about $120,000 over the next two years to administer FOCUS. It has received state approval to start the program.
The University of California at San Diego will study the economic impact of the benefits by charting changes in employee absenteeism, productivity, turnover and workers' compensation costs.
The goal is to convince businesses that not covering employees inevitably costs them more in the long run, said Jeff Lazenby, Sharp Health Plan's director of business development.
"We want to try and prove this is an investment rather than a cost for business. We can show this is a positive benefit," he said.
Lazenby denied that data from FOCUS might be used to market Sharp Health Plan. Sharp has 77,000 enrollees, although Medicaid recipients account for two-thirds of that enrollment. About 27,000 enrollees are commercial, of whom Lazenby estimated about 20,000 are from the small-group market.
Officials say so many workers in the region are uninsured because of the large numbers of small businesses in the market. According to the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, 90% of all firms in the region have fewer than 12 employees.
"The workers can't afford insurance, or their employer doesn't offer it-and can't afford it, either," said Ruth Reidel, Alliance's chief executive officer.
FOCUS came about purely by chance, according to Alliance spokeswoman Stephanie Casenza. Alliance and Sharp Health Plan executives encounter one another regularly in the hallways of the office building where both companies rent space, and they gradually began discussing the efficacy of such a program.
The FOCUS subsidy for employers is set to expire in 2001, when the grant from Alliance runs out. An Alliance spokeswoman said it might fund the program past 2001 if it can find other money sources.