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Rendell touts UnitedHealthcare restaurant workers' plan

Does United offer anything Independence Blue Cross doesn't already?

EXPANDED: Gov. Rendell was Philadelphia this afternoon promoting private, for-profit insurer UnitedHealthcare's effort to get Pennsylvania restaurant owners to sign up an estimated 200,000-300,000 low-paid, part-time or seasonal workers with no health insurance, for the Restaurant Healthcare Alliance, a new plan it's rolling out in partnership with the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association.

Rendell cheered United for offering competition to locally-dominant Independence Blue Cross and other Blue affiliates. I asked him if insurance competition doesn't just mean a lot of money wasted on marketing. He said Obama's law limited non-healthcare costs to 15% of insurers' premiums, about the same as the industry now pays. And he questioned whether the Blues are really "nonprofits," given how many for-profit businesses they own.

PRA's parent group, the National Restaurant Association, agreed in May to set up a string of state plans in advance of the Obama health care law's 2014 requirement that bosses offer insurance or else pay penalties, notes association spokesman Michael Meehan. Chief executive Dawn Sweeney acknowledged her group will get a fee for every restaurant worker who signs on with United. She said it would be less than 1 percent of premiums.

United has been trying to boost its Pennsylvania customer list at the expense of industry giant Independence Blue Cross, its affiliates, and other Blue plans around the state. Getting a few thousand restaurants, already required to find coverage for their relatively young, healthy, uninsured staff, is one way to boost market share.

What's new about this "Alliance"? "These products are not necessarily new; we're bundling them together in a one-stop shop," said Cheryl Randolph, spokeswoman for Minnesota-based United Healthcare. United officials said plans start at $225 to $350 a month, and range higher, depending on benefits, deductibles, willingness to use plan doctors, and copayment levels.

The governor and the insurers spoke at Rose Group's Applebee's Neighborhood Bar and Grill on 15th St. in Center City. Workers there told my colleague Jane Von Bergen they don't have health insurance and haven't yet been offered any.

United insures about 800,000 workers, dependents, and Medicare and Medicaid recipients, of Pennsylvania's 12 milion+ residents, said Jeff Alter, chief executive of United's Northeast region.