In July ( [Article link]) we offered a few tips on how to shop for an employee-assistance program, or EAP, an independent service that offers counseling and referrals to employees coping with a wide range of personal problems. Good EAPs help maintain mental health and contain health-care costs through prevention and early intervention. Some small companies are making their EAPs even more economical by joining consortia, groups of employers that contract with providers to purchase marketing, training, and consultation services in bulk, spreading costs across a bigger pool of employee clients.

Every major metropolitan area has at least one EAP consortium. To find one near you, consult local members of trade and civic associations or unions; your chamber of commerce; or local EAP providers. "No two consortia offer identical services, and no company is too small to join," says Susan Grainger, executive director of Employee Assistance of Central Virginia, a consortium of 58 companies (ranging in size from 4 to 4,000 employees) in Lynchburg. The most successful consortia are community-based nonprofits, organized by businesses, whose large members partially underwrite the costs for their small confreres.

How much will you save? Harold Green, founder and president of Chamberlain Contractors, a paving company in Laurel, Md., managed to cut his annual EAP cost per employee by 65% and maintain the same level of care, he says. But 20% savings are more typical, and some businesses report only marginal savings.

Consortium members commonly sacrifice some service niceties, too. Cheaper consortia, especially, tend to treat a group as one big corporation instead of as individual companies with very different needs. That may mean impersonal training and fewer on-site visits by counselors. Then again, Green notes, "if you've already developed your own internal wellness or safety programs, you may need only standard educational workshops." -- Karen E. Carney

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