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As co-working catches on, benefit plans pop up to serve them

Ashley Proctor launched COHIP, which extends health-insurance plans for those who work in collaborative spaces.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

It was an accident that would shatter Ashley Proctor's hopes in one sense, but create lifelong purpose in another.

Her bicycle accident, while en route to Toronto's Ontario College of Art and Design in 2002, drove home how difficult it is for the self-employed to afford health insurance. She was a key member of the student union and worked at the school as one of the key organizers of Xpace, where artists and designers could showcase their work.

"It impacted my ability to walk. I lost my student status, I lost my fellowship, my health and dental insurance through school ... I had no backup plan," Ms. Proctor, now 36, recalls. "I lost my job with the school and another part-time job that was helping me get through college, I lost my car, I depended on family and friends to help me out."

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More than a decade later, she launched COHIP, or Coworking Health Insurance Plan, in partnership with Coworking Ontario, a collective of shared working environments.

At first offered only to Coworking Ontario members, COHIP later became one of the first extended health-insurance plans in Canada for those who work in collaborative spaces. It first expanded Ontario-wide, then to Quebec and British Columbia before last year going national.

Micro-enterprises, which consist of one to four employees, constitute more than half of all private employers in the country, according to Statistics Canada.

Ms. Proctor is considered a co-working pioneer. She launched her first independent venture in 2006, called Creative Blueprint, which offers professional and support services and collaborative facilities to artists and entrepreneurs. Today it has locations in Toronto and Seattle. Later she started the Toronto locations for the Artist Work Studios and The Foundery.

She is also the executive producer of this year's Global Coworking Unconference Conference, coming in October to Vancouver, where she's helping the Vancity Community Foundation transform the city's former police headquarters into 312 Main, Canada's largest co-working community. The $15-million space will serve artists, arts-focused entrepreneurs and non-profits.

But even while stacked with work, the bike accident remained ingrained in Ms. Proctor's entrepreneurial mind. "That experience drove me to think, 'What's out there for people in their own situations, for all my peers going into self-employment or being independent contractors?'"

Charlotte Kirby heard about COHIP after she launched the Village Hive, a collaborative work space in Markham, Ont., in January.

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It didn't take much convincing for Ms. Kirby to begin offering COHIP to workers at the Village Hive, which has about 85 members paying from $90 to $300 a month).

COHIP is run by volunteers and financed with membership fees. A co-working space, artist collective or union can join COHIP for a $150 annual fee, and all its members are eligible to apply for benefits, says Ms. Proctor. An individual or small business that is not associated with one of these groups may still apply for COHIP benefits for a one-time administrative fee of $25.

The plan links users with insurance agents and brokers offering services that often are not covered under provincial health plans, such as dental, disability, chiropractic, acupuncture, massage, term life and drug benefits. Ms. Proctor says she doesn't have current data on the number of COHIP users.

What kind of premiums do users pay? It's difficult to give a range, she says, because prices vary among coverage plans and between provinces. But COHIP users pay 10 to 20 per cent less than they would if they sought out private insurance, she says.

When asked whether she has any competition, Ms. Proctor says, "In Canada, there are maybe three or four individual brokers who've identified entrepreneurs and startups as a burgeoning market … so no real collaborative effort. In the U.S., it's piecemeal."

For small business owners, especially those working alone or with limited staff, getting sick or injured can be a scary prospect, says Ms. Kirby, 47, whose background is in corporate health care. "One person in the Village Hive that I know of who signed on [to COHIP] is a single mom. Getting these kinds of benefits are also good for self-employed couples," who don't have them through an employer.

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Ms. Proctor says she's still dealing with the lingering effects of that 2002 bike accident. She's a COHIP member herself, and she uses its coverage to help manage her chronic pain.

While COHIP is now available to everyone, she says, it's just part of the plan "to achieve bigger things," which include developing a toolkit for the independent work force, and possibly even a pension plan.

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