Healthcare co-ops have converts and critics

Fri Aug 28, 2009 11:13am EDT
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By Carey Gillam

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn (Reuters) - Bethany Whitehead is aware of the contentious national debate about U.S. healthcare reform, but the young Minnesotan has solved her own problems -- by joining a healthcare cooperative.

Last year, the 33-year-old art museum employee struggled to pay $200 in monthly premiums for her employer-sponsored insurance. Then she joined her husband in HealthPartners, a Minnesota-based co-op with more than 1.2 million members.

The couple now pay only $80 a month for joint coverage and receive better care, Whitehead said.

"It's a wonderful way to go," she said of the cooperative that emails her lab results and operates a women's specialty clinic near her home.

Such cooperatives may play a key role in legislation being hammered out in Congress. Earlier this month, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the administration would consider creating not-for-profit insurance cooperatives as part of a sweeping reform package that President Barack Obama has declared his top priority.

Obama has said reform should drive down healthcare costs, provide insurance for the 46 million Americans who currently lack coverage and not add to the U.S. budget deficit.

He and most Democrats want reform to include a federal government-run health insurance plan to compete with big private insurers. But Republicans say this so-called "public option" is a road to European-style socialized medicine.

Cooperatives established and governed by members as nonprofit organizations already provide many Americans with phone, electricity and other services and credit union loans.   Continued...

<p>A protester holds a sign outside a building where a dialogue on the proposed healthcare reform for ticketed guests is being held in Dallas, Texas August 17, 2009. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi</p>