Ashley Proctor, founder of multiple coworking spaces, Executive Producer of GCUC Canada, and founder of COHIP (Coworking Health Insurance Plan).
Outgrowing traditional healthcare
Freelancers are gaining undeniable momentum in the modern workforce. The US alone is already home to 54 million freelancers, who make up a whopping 34% of the country’s entire workforce. By 2020, some experts are estimating that half of the global workforce will be made up of self-employed freelancers. Freelancing comes with a myriad of benefits: locational flexibility, unlimited vacation time, higher autonomy, and a day-to-day that’s anything but ordinary. Yet there are a few ways in which our modern world has been unable to keep up with this growing population of self-employed workers. One massive problem is a lack of accessible, affordable healthcare options available to the individual. To say that traditional healthcare systems, especially those within countries without any federalized health care, are underprepared for this self-employment boom would be a massive understatement.
Enter Ashley Proctor, a coworking jack-of-all-trades. She’s been knee deep in the world of coworking since she founded her first space, Creative Blueprint, back in 2006. Since then, she’s gone on to found spaces in Toronto and Seattle, co-found the Coworking Toronto and Coworking Ontario collectives, and serves as the executive producer of GCUC Canada. But one project is particularly near and dear to her heart: creating COHIP, the world’s first Coworking Health Insurance Plan for freelancers. For our conversation, we focused in on this exciting and innovative program which lays the groundwork for what Ashley hopes will become a worldwide revolution in healthcare options for the individual.
COHIP’s origin story
After a bike accident lost Ashley her status as a full-time college student (and with it, her health insurance), she had a real wakeup call.
”We’re so lucky in Canada to have our basic health care covered. But when I was injured, the first hospital visit was covered, as well as a few of the follow-ups. But so many of the programs I needed – physical therapy, massage therapy, visits to the pain center – were not.”
As soon as she was able to get back on her feet, both physically and literally, she set out determined to find a health insurance plan that was affordable and accessible. Yet she was disheartened to discover such a plan simply didn’t exist. She put feelers out into her community, wondering how others dealt with this problem. Some chose to take the risk of forgoing a health care plan, hoping their basic federalized health care would be enough. Some were in jobs they absolutely hated, but who felt trapped. They needed to provide for their family by maintaining the health insurance that came with work, but they felt like the only way to do that was to tie themselves to a job that was ironically eroding their mental health. There was one thing clear to Ashley: the current systems in place were outdated and inefficient. Health care shouldn’t be a luxury or a privilege, but rather a right. Frustrated that there wasn’t a health care option that served the individual, Ashley decided to create it herself.
“As young people we often don’t bother with extended benefits not because we think we’re invincible, but mostly because we think it’s impossible, that it’s out of reach financially. COHIP is designed to be affordable and meet the needs of everyone.”
Persuading the naysayers
The insurance world is traditionally a highly risk-adverse industry by nature. Convincing them to see the potential in such a non-traditional idea was anything but easy. She came up against a lot of no’s before eventually figuring out an approach. People told her that she was crazy, that there was a reason a system like this didn’t exist. She heard a lot of people unwilling to imagine a new way of offering health care, people who didn’t take her seriously.
Eventually Ashley formulated her winning pitch, winning over the insurance world with inspiration from her time in the world of coworking. What makes coworking succeed and thrive? It has a diversity of interest. Coworking survives because so many types of people and companies find use in the model; coworking thrives because it unites this diverse group of individuals around a shared need and common interest. The same, she found, was true of healthcare. The fact that she was pushing for a program that would serve so many, from singles in their 20’s to married parents of four, was appealing to insurance providers. Proving a need that served not only a narrow focus but a large, diverse group won them over for two simple reasons: it both proved that there was a strong interest in a health insurance program for individuals and it also demonstrated diversity of interest (which was important for insurance providers who are characteristically wary of narrow, specific demographics).
While she initially got COHIP off the ground, Ashley never intended to keep it exclusive to her own members. She knew a revolution in health care would become infinitely more achievable if they got other coworking spaces on board. Originally available only in Ontario, COHIP is now available to entire country of Canada, with options available for each province.
“We decided to collaborate instead of to compete. We found that we were able to get more deals for our members when we leveraged our numbers. This means that the more people that participate in the COHIP plan, the more we’re able to offer to all of our members…Eventually, we started to have an impact in the insurance world as well. Our numbers were growing and they were finally starting to take us seriously.”
A temporary champion.
When I asked Ashley what she would see as success in COHIP’s future, she caught me off guard by saying that true success would mean getting to a point where it no longer needed to exist. It’s rare that you hear someone working on something passionately who believes that true success means being able to basically close up shop. COHIP is a project born out of great passion to fill a need, a project virtually free of ego.
“This was always intended to be sort of a stop-gap. And that is because this is something that should ideally live with the government. The government should be pushing to support independent workers, especially considering how many freelancers are expected to join the workforce in coming years. Really, it’s about taking care of Canadians. And that shouldn’t be the responsibility of an individual health care plan. I’m happy to step up in the meantime, as I think it’s obviously a really important initiative. In the grand scheme of things, COHIP will be extremely successful if there’s not a need for it in another 5 or 10 years and that this would just be obvious and be offered to all independent workers in Canada.”
The coworking connection.
COHIP has strong links to the coworking world. But if you’re an individual without ties to a coworking space (or other form of collaborative work space), fear not. Ashley stresses that you don’t need to be an ongoing member of a coworking space in order to register for the plan. Once you have signed up, you can maintain the health care coverage as long as you continue to make the payments. This means that you can even simply arrange to have a day pass at a coworking space to qualify you for COHIP without becoming an ongoing member. So why tie the program to collaborative workspaces specifically?
“The point of being connected to a collaborative workspace is to let people know that these resources exist, that these communities exist so that they [the independent workers] can find that network of support if they want it. We’re asking people to reach out to make contact, at least for the signup process. If they continue to be a part of that community that’s great, but it’s not necessary. As we see it, at least they know that the resources are there, that there is a strong collection of independent workers they can turn to or collaborate with if they choose to do so.”
Tying the program to coworking spaces lends power to the COHIP movement and vice versa. They’re both movements designed to fundamentally disrupt traditional structures which have been in place for decades and decades, so it only makes sense to allow each to gain power from the other. After all, coworking was at one time a wild approach to work. Few even knew that coworking spaces existed and many who did considered them to be nothing more than a crazy fad. Now, coworking is taking the world by storm. In another few years, hopefully federalized individual health care plans are awarded a similar fate.
To find out more about COHIP, such as how to see if your coworking space is a participant or to register your coworking space, visit the COHIP website. Outside of Canada? Currently, COHIP is only available to spaces located within Canada. However, Ashley and her team are happy to share their knowledge with others interested in championing a similar movement in their own home countries, so feel free to reach out.
About the ShareDesk Blog Series ‘The Future of Work With…’
‘The Future of Work With…’ is a blog series profiling members of the ShareDesk community. We are speaking with our diverse network of entrepreneurs, business travelers, industry thought leaders, freelancers, and flexible workplace operators, and sharing their stories and experiences on how they dream up a more flexible future for work.
Are you part of the ShareDesk community and have an interesting story to share? Contact us.