Brenda Bouw | October 9, 2013

It was after his company doubled in size to more than 30 employees that Sol Cuisine Inc.president Dror Balshine decided it was time to offer a company benefit plan.

"When I was interviewing people, it always came up," said Mr. Balshine, whose Mississauga-based company sells vegetarian burgers and tofu products.

For a company that promotes healthy choices, it also seemed like a no-brainer. "It became an important part of the recruitment process," Mr. Balshine said.

Sol Cuisine is one of a growing number of small businesses offering benefit plans that provide everything from prescription drug coverage to massage therapy to dental care.

A survey commissioned this year by Sun Life Financial Inc. found that 40 per cent of small businesses with between five and 49 employees offer a group benefits plan, and 32 per cent of those that don't are considering setting up a plan in the next two years.

Demand is also growing for individual extended health insurance plans as people leave larger companies where benefit plans are a standard part of the compensation package.

Many workers who go it alone are looking to restore some of the benefits they grew accustomed to at larger corporations. Those are proving difficult to match, which is why some companies and individuals are turning to group plans as a way to get greater coverage for their money. More organizations are also catering to the small business crowd, including Edge to Epic, an online group buying organization that recently announced collective health insurance plans backed by a large Canadian insurer.

"Our vision was to provide independent professionals and small businesses access to the same treatment as larger corporations," chief executive officer Joelle Parenteau said.

Sol Cuisine joined the Toronto Region Board of Trade to offer a more comprehensive plan for its staff, which includes holistic services such as massage therapy, acupuncture and naturopathy.

"It was a question of value for money invested," Mr. Balshine said. "By joining the Board of Trade, we were able to get group power."

Paul Gallucci, vice-president of sales and member services at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, said a growing number of people are paying the $235 annual membership fee to take advantage of its benefits program. The board has an arrangement with the Chambers of Commerce Group Insurance Plan, which is geared toward entrepreneurs.

"As you have more people migrating off into their own businesses ... it has been a growth area," Mr. Gallucci said.

Canada's large insurance companies are also reaching out to individuals and small businesses to offer benefits packages similar to those offered by larger corporations.

Policies can vary widely, depending on the type of coverage required and the health and age of the person purchasing it, said Marc Avaria, Manulife Financial Corp.'s vice-president of group small business.

"All of the options are available; it's just a question of what you want to buy," Mr. Avaria said.

He suggests people consider their health care expenses over the past couple of years, and what their provincial health system will and will not cover. Also to be weighed are emergency medical costs that can't be predicted. "It comes down to the value you place on that," he said.

A recent Sun Life survey showed that slightly more than half of those aged 45 to 54 who had suffered a major illness struggled to make ends meet. Although 82 per cent of respondents said they know it is important to have money set aside in case of illness, only 13 per cent actually do.

Also, a 2011 survey commissioned by Sanofi showed people prefer extended health benefits to higher salaries. When offered a choice between $10,000 and their health benefits, 59 per cent of the survey participants said they would rather keep their benefits, up from 56 per cent in 2009.

"Benefits are about peace of mind," said Marilee Mark, vice-president of group benefits at Sun Life Financial.



If you have just left a job with a benefits package and want to set up one on your own, consider these elements:


Some benefit providers will provide bridge coverage from a previous plan for a certain period, such as 30 or 60 days. The advantage is that you can carry over your benefits without having to provide evidence of your current health status. "It's often not one of the first things people think about when they're leaving," said Marilee Mark, vice-president of group benefits at Sun Life Financial. "It's a question to ask when leaving a job - what's available to me?"

Group or spousal coverage

Can you sign up on your spouse's plan or join an association that offers group benefits? "The best coverage to probably have is group coverage versus individual coverage because there are fewer restrictions, it tends to be broader coverage, and a little less expensive because you are rated on the whole group," Ms. Mark said.

Brenda Bouw