The plan, "Healthy Workers," was developed by local advocacy groups Working Partnerships USA and Santa Clara Family Health Plan and the county-run Santa Clara Valley Health and Hospital System. Healthy Workers is open to those who earn less than $18 per hour and work more than 20 hours per week at businesses with two to 50 employees, Working Partnerships USA spokesman Jody Meacham said.
"There are such a great number in our county who are without care," Santa Clara County supervisor Liz Kniss, a registered nurse, said. "This plan will give them the dignity and respect of having health care coverage."
Hassem Bordbari, the owner of Barron Park Florist on El Camino Real, said he canceled health insurance for himself and his two employees one year ago because their combined monthly premium reached $2,400. He knows several neighboring shop owners who cannot provide insurance either, he said.
"(Health care) in this country is all getting bad, especially when you are getting older. ... We live by the grace of God that nothing happens to us," he said.
Bordbari unsuccessfully looked for a cheaper plan when his original plan's costs peaked. He said he wants to do "a lot of research" before forming an opinion on Healthy Workers. But, he said, "Whatever they're going to do is better than what it is now."
Under the plan, which debuted last week, employers pay a $150 monthly premium and employees pay a $75 monthly premium. These premiums are roughly half the cost of other comparable plans, Meacham said.
Some business owners already provide health insurance to their employees. Jeff Selzer, who runs Palo Alto Bicycles on University Avenue, said his current plan's premiums have increased by 12 to 20 percent per year in recent years.
If he did not already offer insurance and adopted Healthy Workers, some of his employees would not qualify due to earning higher than the county plan's minimum.
Gillian Robinson, who co-owns the ZombieRunner athletic shop and café on California Avenue, noted Healthy Workers' monthly premium is cheaper than ZombieRunner's current plan's.
"The tough part is finding everything that's out there. ... I have a lot to do every day, and if it would require a lot of work for (only) some savings, I don't know," she said.
Robinson said she might look into Healthy Workers when she hires new employees.
But Meacham clarified Thursday that businesses cannot switch to Healthy Workers from another plan. Only small businesses that are not now offering health coverage are eligible, he said.
Paula Sandas, the president and CEO of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, said the majority of the chamber's estimated 575 member businesses are small enough to qualify for Healthy Workers.
"In Palo Alto, I would guess we are talking about small retail and restaurants. ... This is a really good thing for businesses," she said.
Healthy Workers has been in development since 2006, Meacham said.
The plan provides standard medical care at a discount to people who would otherwise rely on Santa Clara Valley Health and Hospital System emergency rooms — the county's medical "safety net" — for treatment, he said.
Since emergency-room visits cost the county more than regular doctor's appointments, the money the Santa Clara Valley Health and Hospital System saves through reduced emergency-room use will make up for the discount, he said.
"Even if (discounted care) is still costing us money, we still come out ahead," Kniss said.
Sandas said that Healthy Workers' limited selection of participating clinics could be a problem for business owners. The only participating clinic in Palo Alto is the MayView Community Health Center on Grant Road.
Meacham said Working Partnerships USA will monitor the program's effectiveness and accessibility in the coming months.
"If there's tweaking that needs to be done ... we want to be involved in that," he said.