Small-business members of Sam's Club will now be able to pick up some group health insurance along with their computer systems, reams of paper and bulk packs of Bic pens.
The nation's largest warehouse club and unit of Wal-Mart has begun offering low-cost PPO plans to companies with fewer than 100 employees through Answer Financial, an independent insurance broker that sells policies via the Internet. The products-which include a range of benefit and fee structures-are available in 10 states: California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Other states are expected to be added.
The product launch comes as Wal-Mart faces criticism for providing skimpy, high-cost health coverage to its own employees. In October 2003, the AFL-CIO issued a report concluding that only 46% of Wal-Mart employees used its insurance, compared with 66% at other large companies.
But Sam's Club says it's offering the group plans to further cement its relationship with small-business customers. It already offers individual health plans, as well as commercial property, liability, workers' compensation, auto, home and life insurance.
"Providing insurance is one of the biggest challenges (for small businesses) when competing for employees and improving retention," says Cara Kinzey, vice president of membership for Sam's Club.
Answer Financial represents 240 insurers including Humana and UnitedHealth Group's Golden Rule unit. Sam's Club will have no role in selecting the insurance plans, other than requiring Answer Financial to limit them to A-rated companies.
Trading talents for healthcare
While states, Congress and hospitals bicker over billing the uninsured, a small hospital in Maine has found a unique way to get something from those who can't afford their out-of-pocket health costs: Take out the money in trade.
At 50-bed Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, patients who have trouble paying can participate in the Contract for Care program, which allows them to contribute services or products to the hospital in lieu of writing a check.
"It's better to get something instead of nothing," says Jan Hannaford, the hospital's director of volunteer services. "We like to think of it in terms of a project."
One recent project involved a patient who could not afford his entire bill but operated a local car body shop. When a hospital van needed some bodywork, he fixed the vehicle in exchange for his hospital stay.
"We try to tap into people's natural talents," Hannaford says, acknowledging that the program would be far more difficult for a larger or urban hospital to manage.
On a monthly basis 10 or 12 people participate in the program, which was the brainchild of Richard Batt, chief executive officer of Franklin Community Health Network, which operates the hospital and other care facilities.
As the hospital community grapples with the uninsured billing problem and Congress continues to watch the situation, perhaps creativity like Batt's could go a long way toward ameliorating this situation.
Outliers always likes a party, especially one for a good cause, but we'll admit we're squeamish about those that involve dropping one's pants for an invasive medical test.
Audrey Thompson, an assistant oncology nurse manager at Medical Center of Plano, Texas, has organized a number of "colonoscopy parties" for co-workers and friends at the center's outpatient surgery facility. The rooms are decorated with blue and white ribbons and signs like, "I'm proud to be a party pooper." Volunteers cheer on the patients as they are wheeled in for their tests, under sedation. Thompson snaps pictures and hands out silly awards.
These "parties" begin as early as 6: 30 a.m. "I hate to say this, but we have so much fun," Thompson told the Associated Press.
Thompson, 48, is an evangelist for fighting colon cancer, the second-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. The American Cancer Society highlighted her efforts as part of Colon Cancer Awareness Month.
Kathryn Magnuson, 53, received a photo of the mushroom-shaped polyp removed from her colon at one party. A pharmacist at the hospital, Magnuson must have a follow-up screening next year because tests showed the polyp was precancerous.
She says she may not have had the screening without Thompson's urging. "This is wonderful that she does this," Magnuson says. "It takes the fear away."
Thompson, who has yearly screenings, came up with the party idea after she and fellow nurse Anneli Fuller decided to have colonoscopies together. The pair made a day of it, and after the procedure went shopping and had dinner.