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Health Care Co-op Designed for SC’s Small Businesses

By Liv Osby for The Greenville News
For more than 60 years, Cline Hose & Hydraulics in Greenville has provided health insurance to its employees — but as the cost went up, the plans changed.

“When we first started, we had coverage for all our employees and their wife and children,” said Neb Cline Jr., an advisory board member of the company, which manufactures products for the automotive and industrial markets.

“But we had to decrease to just the employee over the years,” he said. “It’s been very difficult every year to re-budget our funds to compensate our employees as a benefit to them.”

Now Cline thinks he has an answer for the 37 workers at the Buncombe Street business — the South Carolina Health Cooperative.

The cooperative is a private nonprofit organization that aims to pool small businesses together to buy commercial insurance at lower rates than they can get individually.

Just licensed last week by the state Department of Insurance, the cooperative is the brainchild of Cooper Littlejohn, a 20-year-old Georgia Tech business major who is the cooperative’s chief executive.

“I saw a problem and I wanted to help,” he said at the Cline company, surrounded by family and other supporters. “And I always enjoy a challenge.”

The cooperative is the first of its kind in South Carolina and one of only a few in the nation, said state Sen. William H. O’Dell, R-Ware Shoals, a member of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, adding that small businesses create eight of 10 jobs statewide.

It would help small businesses by increasing the size of the pool so the risk could be spread among many employees, thereby reducing costs, he said. And it increases businesses’ bargaining power while reducing their administrative costs, allowing them more money to invest in growth.

Littlejohn said he got the idea while working as an intern at the Nuttall Insurance Agency in Seneca, where he lives.

“It was not only that rates for small businesses kept going up, even if they had a good year health-wise, they might get hit with a 20 percent increase,” he said. “Or if one person fell sick, it would go up 40 percent.”