Arizona's only health care co-op gains steam

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX -- You may have heard about co-op health insurance by now, but you may not yet know the name Meritus.

Meritus is the alternative for some Arizonans feeling betrayed by big health insurance companies.

"A health care cooperative is a member-governed, nonprofit insurance company,” Meritus CEO Kathleen Oestreich explained. “We are a licensed insurance company to sell HMO and PPO products.”

The Meritus call center is busy these days, answering questions and signing up new clients days after the Affordable Care Act open enrollment deadline has passed.

Oestreich said members of health care co-ops like Meritus have a say in how things are run and can share in the co-op's success.

"The excess revenues of the company are returned to the member in the form of premium reductions, improved benefits and services,” Oestreich said. “Everything is done in the co-op for the benefit of the member."

Success can mean lower premiums, which is something Meritus member Nori Muster, a self-employed writer, finds attractive.

“I've always had insurance that I had to purchase because of being self-employed, but it seemed like every year the rates went up and the coverage got worse and worse,” Muster said. “It got to the point that I had a $10,000 deductible."

She decided to enroll in Arizona’s only co-op because not only was it affordable, but the coverage was far superior to what she had. She also liked the idea of having a voice.

“It was something new and I'm not a big fan of the insurance bureaucracy,” she said.

Meritus is just one of 23 new companies created under the Affordable Care Act and while the companies only have a couple percent of the market, they remain optimistic.

“We're expecting that in 2015, there will be a lot more activity than there was this year,” Oestreich said.