The Canton Regional Chamber Health Fund is available to businesses that are members of the Chamber and employ up to 50 workers.

CANTON  The Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce and AultCare have established a group health care option for small businesses.

Insurance coverage will be available starting Thursday.

The Multiple Employer Welfare Arrangement (MEWA), known as the Canton Regional Chamber Health Fund, is available to businesses that are members of the Chamber and employ up to 50 workers. Dennis Saunier, president and CEO of the Chamber, said four employers already have joined.

By contributing and being medically underwritten as a group, participants can chose from nine AultCare plans with "competitive rates," he said.

"Health care is probably the No. 1 or 2 issue that faces our business community," Saunier said Wednesday. Concerns include the "continual rise of the cost of health care, and then what type of coverage do those costs provide."

The self-funded program took at least a year of planning and needed state approval. Chamber and AultCare representatives said the MEWA, which is regulated by the Ohio Department of Insurance, requires an agency such as the Chamber to serve as its sponsor.

AultCare required at least $500,000 held in reserves to initiate the program, ensuring any early claims could be paid.

Frank Hayden, AultCare's senior vice president of operations, said a few thousand people are projected to participate by the end of the year. MEWAs long have existed in various forms nationwide, and AultCare approached the Chamber with the proposal.

"We knew MEWAs were an emerging entity, that they're gaining more popularity recently," Hayden said.

The AultCare provider network primarily covers Stark, Tuscarawas, Wayne, Holmes and Carroll, but coverage can be offered outside those counties, he said.

Of the four participating businesses — with a combined total of about 30 employees — two were not existing Chamber members and one did not previously offer insurance.

Saunier said the majority of Chamber members are small businesses, which drive the local economy. This is the latest service the Chamber seeks to provide them.

"We're giving the business community the opportunity to make a business decision," he said.

For more information, business representatives are asked to call 330-456-7253 about Chamber membership or talk to an independent broker or AultCare representative about health care options.

Reach Kelly at 330-580-8323

or kelly.byer@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @kbyerREP