A popular health insurance plan offered by Chambers Of Commerce is coming to an end and many local chambers are concerned that without the plan they may lose members.
Under the Affordable Health Care Act, beginning on January 1, 2014, health insurance will be purchased through exchanges set up in states across the country.
On that date, local Chambers Of Commerce in Vermont will no longer be able to offer a popular health insurance program known as VACE to their small business members. Currently about 17,000 Vermonters are insured through the chamber program.
"There is no doubt that every chamber in the state of Vermont will lose members because of changes to the insurance," says Jerry Goldberg, executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.
Goldberg says Chambers Of Commerce have always been about promoting economic growth.
The health insurance plan is simply a perk.
"What we’re supposed to be doing is really making our areas attractive for business, for tourists, for the locals. That’s what our job is. Our job is really not to provide health insurance," he explains.
Still, a certain percentage of chamber members join solely to take advantage of the program.
Darcie McCann is executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce.
She also heads the organization that helps administer the health insurance program for the roughly 3 dozen chambers of commerce in Vermont.
"Our chambers have anywhere from 25-40 percent of their members on health insurance plan," says McCann. "If they no longer have a health insurance plant to go to, will we then lose them as members?"
McCann says each chamber receives some revenue from VACE policies. Chambers of commerce operate independently and they rely on that money, membership dues and fundraising to pay staff and operate.
McCann says chambers are developing new services to increase revenues and offset potential losses when VACE ends.
We’re all looking at value added benefits that we can do," she says. "We’re looking at enhanced listings, we’re doing display signs outside our offices. We’re dong any number of different things to be in revenue sources and not do yet another golf tournament as a fundraiser."
The concerns about the loss of the health care program come at a time when many local chambers have seen a decline in membership because of the recession.
Andy Mayer is president of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce.
"We came down maybe 10% from our high water mark prior to the recession," says Mayer.
Mayer says membership is slowly rebounding but the loss of the health care program could take a significant bite out of his current membership of 600.
"We’re quite concerned," he adds. "We think we could well lose 100 members out of the 600."
Chamber executives say they’re getting lots of calls from members about how the Affordable Care Act will affect business.
Betsy Bishop is president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.
"That’s the big unknown right now. We’re looking at finding out what the premium costs are in the summer. Then there’s a lot of decisions that businesses are going to have to make about whether they choose to continue purchasing health insurance for their employees or if they drop insurance and have their employees go into the health exchange as an individual," Bishop says.
Bishop says the Vermont Chamber’s membership is growing and she doesn’t expect her organization to lose members because of the health care changes.
Even though chambers will no longer offer health care coverage to small businesses, a new plan instituted last month by the statewide Vermont Chamber offers coverage for other health related expenses like dental and eye care.