BankBoston Corp. is offering health insurance to small-business customers to bolster relationships.

The six-month-old program was not designed with profit in mind, the bank says, and has helped deepen relationships with fledgling companies on BankBoston's books.

"We're just trying to give them a gateway," said Cyndi Gadberry, marketing director for small-business banking products. "We're trying to make it easy."

Small businesses find it difficult to get affordable health insurance, which can make it harder to attract and keep employees. BankBoston offers the program with Small Business Service Bureau Inc., an insurance agency in Worcester, Mass., that caters to smaller companies.

An "800" number advertised by BankBoston through direct mail and publicized in newspaper articles rings at the Small Business Service Bureau. The agency's employees, who answer the phone with "BankBoston," handle inquiries and enrollments.

More than 200 businesses have signed onto policies from providers including Harvard Pilgrim, Tufts Health Plan, and Cigna Healthsource.

Au Chocolat, an old-fashioned candy store on Boston's High Street, enrolled last October.

Owner Edward Boyer, who said his business is unique to the city because it's the only one that offers 22 colors of M&Ms, said BankBoston's offer came just as he was looking to replace his health insurance.

"The premium I had from the previous company was about to triple," Mr. Boyer said.

Unlike other plans he contacted, BankBoston's representatives were enthusiastic in discussing his needs-even though his business has only one other employee.

"They were very up front with information, and you didn't have to beg them" for it, he said. "It was almost too good to be true."

In appreciation he sent a basket of chocolates to the phone center.

Another big draw: BankBoston lets customers pay their premiums electronically through bank accounts. Insurance companies don't cut you much slack if a payment arrives a few days late, Mr. Boyer said.

Ordinarily, Mr. Boyer said, he likes to spread his business around but he's happy to be enrolled in this program even though BankBoston charges for everything-"even rolled change."

Mr. Boyer was skeptical when told that BankBoston would probably not profit from the venture. "You'd have to go a long way to prove that to me," he said.

But Lisa M. Carroll, vice president of plan services for the Worcester agency said the bank would probably just cover expenses. "They are not going to make any money from it," she said.

But the alliance is a boon for Small Business Service Bureau, which gains an entree to BankBoston's customer base of 135,000 small businesses with revenues up to $10 million.

Marianne Felder, senior vice president of retail insurance at BancBoston Insurance Agency, said the idea was simply to help small businesses in an area where it would be too expensive for the bank to build a program.

"Part of the philosophy is that I have to make sure our customers get the expertise they need. It would be crazy to build that expertise inside when we can get it outside," Ms. Felder said.

Ms. Carroll said she was surprised how many companies have signed onto BankBoston's program despite the lack of extensive marketing.

Given that response, Ms. Gadberry said, the bank has decided to keep the program.

"It was not established as a money-maker for this institution," she said.

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