Though he hasn't even earned his bachelor's degree yet, 20-year-old management major Cooper Littlejohn is already breaking new ground in health care insurance.
He's created the South Carolina Health Cooperative (SCHC), the first approved co-op in that state since a 2008 law allowed for its creation. It pools the collective buying power of small businesses (with two to 50 employees) to negotiate better rates with insurance companies than any single participating company could get on its own.
Littlejohn got the idea for the co-op after helping out a family friend/insurance salesman with some accounting issues for a week during summer 2009. He learned that some small businesses were facing rate increases of 20 to 30 percent, even though their employees hadn't had significant medical problems that year.
"I was touched by the fact that the increase meant layoffs for some of them," Littlejohn says. "During lunch with my friend, I learned that a 2008 law had allowed for the creation of health cooperatives. So I asked him why no one had created one, and he said, 'If you're so smart, figure out a way to do it.'"
And that's exactly what Littlejohn did for the next year and a half, as he juggled his studies in Atlanta with frequent trips to South Carolina to cut through regulatory red tape and fine-tuning of the existing law. He gathered a team of supporters and met with numerous legislators during the process.
Leap of Faith
Littlejohn, who serves as CEO of the SCHC, is thankful for all involved for taking the "leap of faith" that a 20-year-old could help solve health care insurance problems for small businesses.
"I would have an initial meeting to get past the age issue, talk a little bit, and then come back later to talk actual business,” Littlejohn says. "Business owners have been very receptive to the idea that we can lower their insurance rates. I was worried about the legislators, but I was amazed at how imaginative and open they were.
"My age was not important to them," he adds. "They loved the fact that the co-op is private, not requiring a dime of tax dollars, and that it will lower insurance premiums, creating jobs in South Carolina."
According to the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, only 40 percent of companies with 50 or less employees provide health insurance. While 50 employees is currently the cap for participation in the SCHC, Littlejohn hopes to win the Department of Insurance's approval to increase the upper limit to 100 employees.
The SCHC, which was approved just before Thanksgiving, is currently processing applications and expects to have hundreds of participating companies covered by the spring. "The more people we get to sign up, the better rates we can negotiate with the insurance companies," Littlejohn says.
For the foreseeable future, Littlejohn will remain unpaid in his role as CEO of the SCHC. "What's rewarding for me is getting to meet small business owners every day,” he says. “Many of these people have taken over family businesses and are steeped in tradition. They always find a way to keep their businesses going.”
Littlejohn says his Georgia Tech management education has proven invaluable in the course of getting the SCHC started. “Tech has been the best resource I ever could have imagined,” he says. “I’m taking business principles I’ve learned and applying them every day.”
Change of Plans
Since his freshman year of high school, Littlejohn knew he wanted to major in management at Georgia Tech after visiting campus from his hometown of Seneca, South Carolina.
"In high school, I had it all planned out. I'd come to Tech, go to law school, and get a corner office working on contracts and litigation," he says. "But when this opportunity landed in my lap, I said, 'Let's do it.' Life threw a curveball, and I'm rolling with the punches right now."
To help cover the costs of getting the SCHC up and running, Littlejohn has continued to work as a freelance producer for sporting events covered by such networks as ESPN, CBS, and Fox. On many weekends, he travels to events throughout the Southeast, helping coordinate instant replays and game highlights.
He's been involved with the world of television since age four when he began helping out his father, who works in the industry. "It taught me a lot about work ethic," Littlejohn says. "Most kids play videogames, but high-pressure TV is my videogame."