Pro dealers seeking relief from rising health care costs can sometimes get a break by enrolling in group insurance plans through their trade associations.

But getting insurance companies to cooperate is sometimes easier said than done. New Mexico's dealers' don't have that option because "we don't have the population [i.e., a sufficient number of dealers] to form an insurance group through the association," says Paula Ervin of Randall Lumber in Taos, N.M.

The Southern Building Material Association, on the other hand, has plenty of members in several Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states, and has negotiated a group insurance rate with BlueCross BlueShield. But dealers already using that carrier would have to drop it and then rejoin through the association to participate. "That would be burdensome for our employees," says Steven Vowell of Vowell & Sons in Tennessee.

The Eastern Building Material Dealers Association has yet to offer group health insurance to its members. But it's contemplating doing so within the next two years. The biggest obstacle? "Individual state mandates," says executive director David Garrett, which make it more difficult for his association to come up with an omnibus model.

"We'd have to work with one insurance carrier in a state, develop a plan, take that plan to another state, and work that way," Garrett says.

Ninety percent of the dealers in the Rensselaer, N.Y.-based Northeastern Retail Lumber Association (NRLA) offer their employees some form of health care coverage, says the trade group's president, Rita Ferris. And despite rumors, Ferris can't see her members dropping insurance coverage for their employees. "They are dedicated to not only offering insurance but really good insurance, which is unique." The question all dealers must answer, however, is how much are they willing to pay?

NRLA this summer sought to develop a program for its Massachusetts members that would create an "experience rated group," which Ferris explains would be based on the health care-related experiences of 202 members, including dealers, their branches and associate members.

However, NRLA got bad news in early September when its broker, Eastern Insurance, couldn't find one carrier among the six it shopped this program to that was willing to write policies. Their reason, says Ferris, was that the association's membership is so disparate in terms of numbers of employees that carriers couldn't devise a single rate based on the group's healthcare experiences. One carrier, though, did offer a 3% premium discount for larger dealers.