Local businesses wary, concerned about insurance marketplace
by Patrick McCreless
pmccreless@annistonstar.com
Sep 28, 2013 | 3198 views |  0 comments | 80 80 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Owners of Moore Printing Co. Steve Taylor and Danny Shears stack prints that they have printed for a customer at their shop in Anniston. Photo by Stephen Gross.
Owners of Moore Printing Co. Steve Taylor and Danny Shears stack prints that they have printed for a customer at their shop in Anniston. Photo by Stephen Gross.
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The impending federal insurance marketplaces for businesses might provide lower-cost health care for the employees at Moore Printing Company in Anniston — or it might not offer any affordable insurance to the business at all.

Moore Printing co-owner Danny Shears is unsure how the program will affect his business.

In any case, he'd rather the government just not offer the program at all.

"I do believe in insurance, that people should have it," Shears said. "But I just think this is more big government that they're forcing on people."

While open enrollment begins Tuesday for individual consumers for the insurance marketplaces, part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, small businesses will have to wait if they want to enroll online. The Federal government announced Thursday that it will delay online enrollment of small businesses in the insurance exchanges until Nov. 1. The delay is just one more facet of a law that has some local business owners confused about what to do and others concerned it will hurt their bottom line.

Shears, who has five employees, said that he still knows very little about insurance marketplaces and what he is or is not supposed to do.

"I don't know if we'd qualify," Shears said. "In this situation, I don't know what kind of government bureaucracy you'd have to deal with."

While the federal government has released various reports and details on the marketplaces in the past year, there has not been much advertising on the local level from officials about the program. Jeff Nelson, the Anniston-based federal navigator tasked with helping individuals and small businesses understand the insurance marketplaces, said he and his counterparts around the state have been unable to advertise about the program yet.

"We can't just use any type of advertising material," Nelson said. "All the flyers and marketing materials have to be the proper size and have the official logo."

Nelson said he expects to have the advertising materials ready by Tuesday.

The marketplace

The individual marketplace is designed to provide affordable insurance, mainly to those who cannot afford it, by offering tax credits based on income to consumers and encouraging competition among insurance providers. A separate marketplace, however, called the Small Business Health Options Program, is mainly for small businesses with 50 or fewer employees. Businesses can shop in the marketplace for a variety of plans, as individuals would, and can also receive tax credits to help supplement the cost. However, unlike for individuals, the tax credits for businesses will phase out in the next two years.

Small businesses can check online at healthcare.gov to see if they qualify for the marketplace. Also, though they cannot enroll online until November, small businesses can still enroll through paper applications and by phone. Small businesses are not required by law to participate in the insurance marketplaces.

Shears said he offers his employees supplemental insurance for things like short-term disability and cancer treatment, but cannot afford full health coverage plans.

"Being a small business owner, if we offered the lowest-priced one we could find now, we're probably looking at another $2,500 coming off the bottom line," Shears said. "That would force us to raise the price on what we sell and make it harder to compete."

Confusion and concern

Nancy King Dennis, spokeswoman for the Alabama Retail Association, said that like Shears, many of her organization's members are still confused about the marketplaces. Dennis said the association had a conference call recently with many members, and most had just vague knowledge of the program and many were unsure what it meant for their businesses.

"There is still a lot of confusion," Dennis said. "Health care ... it's hard for businesses, especially small businesses, they're so busy concentrating on their customers ... it's a lot."

Bill Newman, president of Oxford Lumber, said the health care changes will hurt his business. Oxford Lumber has 100 employees and therefore cannot enroll in the marketplace. However, another part of the health care law taking effect next year, while it doesn't require businesses with 50 or more employees to offer insurance, could impose fines on those that don't offer insurance providing a minimum level of coverage for their full-time employees.

As a result, Newman said, he plans to cut back the hours of some of his employees and hire more part-time workers to avoid fines and having to pay more for health coverage than he can afford. The federal government considers an employee to be full-time if he or she works an average of 30 hours or more per week.

"We do offer health plans to our higher-paid full-time employees ... what this will affect really is our lower paid workers," Newman said. "We're going to more part-time people because of that ... as a smaller business, we're not able to afford insurance for all our lower hourly workers and still be viable."

Newman noted that those hourly workers could still look for health coverage in the individual insurance marketplace.

Newman added that he has incurred extra administrative costs to deal with the extra paperwork associated with healthcare reform.

Benefits

Karen Pollitz, analyst for the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit non-partisan group that focuses on health care issues facing the United States, said the insurance marketplace will still be beneficial for many small businesses who cannot afford insurance now or are looking for a better deal. Pollitz said that even after the tax credits expire, the plans in the marketplaces will be affordable.

"The premiums are coming in lower than anyone expected," Pollitz said.

Pollitz said that the plans will be more affordable and competitive because the health care law now forbids insurers from raising rates on group plans after someone in it gets sick or pregnant, for example. Also, insurers cannot deny coverage based on any pre-existing conditions.

"Insurers now have to compete in a more transparent market," Pollitz said.

Pollitz said the marketplaces should help many small businesses, but it should also help their employees.

"A lot of businesses do struggle to provide benefits today and workers generally are out of luck if they don't have insurance in the employer market," Pollitz said. "Up until now, the independent market has been a no man's land that provided little real coverage."

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

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