An restaurant employee prepares food.
An restaurant employee prepares food. - 
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Kai Ryssdal: Every day about 13 million people make a living taking our orders, cooking our food and doing the dishes. But the pay they get for working in restaurants isn't always all that great. A lot of them can't afford health insurance.

Now, a new agreement between a restaurant trade group and a huge insurance company could put more affordable coverage on the menu, as Janet Babin reports.

JANET BABIN: The restaurant industry has one of the lowest rates of health insurance for employees. Restaurant owners say that's because they need a lot of workers and profit margins are low.

Dawn Sweeney is president of the National Restaurant Association. She says until now, offering health insurance was too expensive.

DAWN SWEENEY: We need to figure out a way to do it in a way that won't put the restaurants out of business because if they don't have a business they won't have employees. It's a vicious cycle.

The cycle may have just stopped. Under an Alliance between the National Restaurant Association and UnitedHeathcare, employees will be able to buy health insurance for about $100 a month. And employers will get discounts on certain plans.

UnitedHealthcare's actions come as many insurance companies are grappling with how to respond to federal heath care reforms.

Kevin Trapani is CEO of casualty insurance company The Redwoods Group. He says UnitedHealthcare saw the reform train coming.

KEVIN TRAPANI: It makes sense to make a decision. Either to get out of the way, or begin going at least in the direction that the train is gonna be moving. I think it may also be a move that is uniquely ethical.

United Healthcare is also lining up millions of new customers, and still reserves the right to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.