Everyone's a Freelancer Now (at Least for Health-Care Benefits)

For much of its existence, the Freelancers Union’s reason for being was to get workers who weren’t in full-time jobs access to health insurance. In 2001, the Brooklyn-based nonprofit started brokering group-rate health coverage to its membership of graphic designers, strategy consultants, and others who work job-to-job. Later, it launched its own insurance company that would sell you coverage if you could prove that you made your income from contract work.

Now the group is trading in its insurance business to provide medical care directly. The 25,000 members in New York covered by Freelancers Insurance Co. will in 2014 be rolled into plans provided by Empire BlueCross BlueShield. Freelancers Union will open 15 primary care clinics around the country in the next five years, says Sara Horowitz, the group’s executive director. It already has two clinics in New York, where workers who buy plans from its insurance arm get primary care with no co-pays and with access to other services. (Tai chi classes, anyone?)

Two things jump out about the plan:

By building new clinics in Los Angeles, Austin, Tx., and additional cities, the organization continues to expand its footprint beyond New York, where 60 percent of its 250,000 members reside. That makes sense. The group estimates that there are more than 53 million freelancers (PDF) in the U.S., most not living in New York. Over the summer, Horowitz announced an initiative to help independent workers in all 50 states choose benefits providers. Opening additional brick-and-mortar outposts will help the Freelancers Union bring more people into its fold.

The new clinics also won’t be limited to freelancers. In theory, they’ll be open to anyone who wants to buy affiliated insurance plans. That’s a big change from the organization’s first insurance offerings back in 2001. When Freelancers Union started negotiating group rates for members, it had to prove to New York State regulators that it qualified as an “association”—the justification for allowing it to offer group health plans. To do that, Freelancers Union created eligibility requirements to make people prove they got their income from freelancing.

Now those rules have gone out the window. The Affordable Care Act requires insurers to make plans available to anyone—scuttling any “freelancers only” requirement. The upshot: Any New Yorker can buy insurance through Freelancers Union and visit their medical clinics.

Will they? New Yorkers who buy a bronze-level plan through the organization will pay $393 a month in 2015, more expensive than some options, cheaper than others. The fact that the primary care clinics won’t charge co-pays for office visits may make the plan more attractive to people who expect to have a lot of appointments.

More important, the Freelancers Union appears to be expanding the criteria for who counts as a “freelancer.” In its recent census of independent workers, the organization counted temps, moonlighters, and just about any worker who isn’t employed full-time for one company. In the past, many of those workers wouldn’t have qualified for insurance from Freelancers Union. Now they can.

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