Barter exchanges allow people to make trades for health-related services
By Alex Nixon
Published: Saturday, May 4, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Small-business owner Jim Owens is able to cover the cost of orthodontics for his employees and their families.
It's quite a perk in an age of shrinking and disappearing benefits for many workers.
Owens does it with the help of a Pittsburgh bartering exchange, an age-old business practice of trading services and goods that more employers are using for medical services such as dental and vision care.
“I think the biggest thing is it helps with employee morale,” said Owens, owner of Call Processing Professionals, a Robinson company that sells business phone systems.
Employees' out-of-pocket costs associated with dental and vision plans are growing, and most plans don't cover braces for a child's teeth, which can cost thousands of dollars. Bartering with orthodontists gives Owens and other business owners in Western Pennsylvania a less expensive way to provide benefits.
“That obviously makes for a very happy employee when you can provide that,” Owens said.
Call Processing Professionals is one of 3,000 Pittsburgh-area businesses that participate in an exchange run by Green Apple Barter Services of Green Tree.
Justin Krane, Green Apple's director of sales and marketing, said rising costs force many companies to trim health benefits.
“It seems like everyone I've talked to has cut back on the dental, vision and (drug) prescriptions” due to higher costs, Krane said. Bartering “is a way they can continue to do it.”
Green Apple, established in 1991, handles about $50 million a year in bartering transactions, making it among the largest networks in the country, Krane said. All manner of goods and services are traded, from advertising and office cleaning to computers or website work.
Health-related services account for a small but growing percentage of barter activity, he said. Green Apple has about 45 medical providers in its network.
Independent dentists, opticians, physical therapists, orthodontists, pharmacists and medical-equipment sellers are common exchange users. Medical doctors and hospitals typically don't participate in bartering, however.
Dr. Tim Chips, a dentist with offices in Ross and Gibsonia, gets about 10 percent of his business through Green Apple's network.
“I've found it a very positive experience,” Chips said.
The additional patients are a nice boost, but the real payoff comes when patients who Chips treats tell their friends and family about him, he said.
“Having people who've had good experience is always good for generating word-of-mouth,” he said.
Chips has used barter credits he generates to pay for maintenance for his offices, marketing and advertising, and other services.
Barter networks such as Green Apple operate like a bank, keeping track of credits and debits for thousands of members, Krane said. As an exchange, bartering isn't done directly. Chips, for example, generates credits for the value of the dental services he provides to Green Apple members. He then uses Green Apple “dollars” to buy goods and services from other members.
“We're an authorized form of payment recognized by the IRS,” Krane said.
Though the number of health providers in Green Apple's network is relatively small, a new member will help expand the number.
Medical Benefits Network, a Green Tree-based insurance agency, runs what it calls a rewards program that provides a 50 percent discount on out-of-pocket costs at hundreds of dentists and opticians in Western Pennsylvania.
Tom Prestia, CEO of the agency, said he created the program as a free benefit for his insurance customers.
“I did it to create (customer) loyalty and create more business by providing value-added services for free,” he said.
Like Chips, Prestia said the advantage of participating in Green Apple's exchange is the opportunity to pick up customers for his insurance business.
“If they come in as one of my members through Green Apple, then I'm known to that company and I can help them out with other needs,” he said.
In the past month, he gained three customers who bought his discount program through Green Apple, he said.
“The rising cost of health insurance is a big thing” driving the popularity of bartering for health care and for Prestia's discount program, he said. “Health insurance doesn't provide dental and vision like what I have. ... It's a no-brainer.”
Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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