What Health Care Reform Means for Your Small Business, Part 1

By Phillip M Perry
The most comprehensive health insurance reform since Medicare is now the law of the land. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), signed into law by President Barack Obama, touches every aspect of health care in the United States.

How does the law affect you? Will your premiums go down? Will it be easier to shop for insurance? Will the available policies offer better coverage? And will you be protected from those profit-busting price hikes that so often occur when one employee in a small group gets seriously ill?

We’ll answer those questions at the end of this article. Here’s one thing to get out of the way first, though: No employer will be required to provide health insurance. However, some employers, as you will see, will pay penalties if they do not provide insurance and their employees decide to buy insurance from the new state-wide insurance pools.

Small is Good

Here’s some good news: The PPACA contains some benefits geared specifically to the needs of small employers. “I think the legislation is really looking out for the smallest of small businesses,” says Shawn Nowicki, director of health policy at New York Business Group on Health (NYBGH), a coalition of 175 employers, unions and health care providers in New York state, Connecticut, and New Jersey (www.nybgh.org).

How so? Right out of the gate the bill provides a tax break. Consider the following questions: Do you have 25 or fewer full time employees? Are their average annual wages less than $50,000? And do you contribute more than 50 percent of your employee’s total premium costs?

If your answers to those three questions are “yeses,” then you may well receive some assistance with your premiums, thanks to a tax credit of up to 35 percent of your contribution toward your employee’s health insurance, for this tax year through 2013. The credit will increase to up to 50 percent for tax year 2014 and 2015.

For this year through 2013, the full tax credit is available to employers with fewer than 10 employees whose average annual wages are less than $25,000. The tax credit gradually scales down as workforce sizes and average wages increase.

Here’s an example. Suppose your business employs 10 fulltime workers and the average wages are $25,000. If your annual employer health care costs are $70,000 then you are entitled to a $24,500 credit each year for 2010 through 2013. Starting in 2014 the credit will be $35,000.

For some help on calculating your own credit, see the guidance recently posted on the web site of the Internal Revenue Service. Go to www.irs.gov and search for “Small Business Health Care Tax Credit” (including the quotation marks). You’ll find a link to the relevant page, which contains a link to “three simple steps on our fact sheet.”

Businesses with 50 or fewer employees benefit from another tax-related benefit: They may opt out of providing insurance with no penalties. Got more than 50 employees? The story’s a little different. As is the case with smaller businesses, you are not required to offer health insurance. However, if you do opt out and it happens that one or more of your employees goes to the new state insurance pools to purchase coverage, you will pay a fee of $2,000 per full time employee, excluding the first 30 employees from the assessment.

More Choice

Tax credits are one thing. Getting enough choice in the insurance policy marketplace is another. Too often, small business owners are faced with limited options: Maybe they have only one or two carriers who will even take the time to talk with them. And negotiating for lower premiums or better benefits? Forget it.

That’s expected to change with the network of state level insurance exchanges slated to kick in come 2014. “The exchanges will make buying insurance a lot easier for small business owners, and thus reduce the administrative burden,” says Terry Gardiner, national policy director for the Washington, D.C.,-based advocacy group Small Business Majority (www.smallbusinessmajority.org).

“Right now the employer has to get a broker, shop for policies, analyze them, and then attempt to negotiate better rates from a weak bargaining position. That can mean a big investment in labor and time, which can be onerous at small companies which typically lack a human resources manager.”

Things should be much easier with the exchanges in place, says Gardiner. “The exchanges will negotiate with insurance companies on behalf of all small businesses and come up with the best deals they can find. All the employer will have to do is figure out a budget, then say ‘Here is the amount I will contribute toward premiums and here is the employee’s share.’ The employees can then go to the exchanges and select what plan they want.” Policies will be available for each of five benefit tier levels.

Will carriers cooperate? Gardiner thinks so. “The carriers will want to market their insurance policies through the exchanges because of the vast pool of customers they represent.” Bottom line: “Small employers will be able to offer choice instead of a single plan, at reduced administrative costs, so they can become more competitive with big business competitors.”

More choice? Great. But will those state exchanges really exert downward pressure on rates? Maybe the competitive marketplace will work as planned, but no one really knows how the numbers will calculate. “On one hand the exchanges would provide a standardized process to make it easier to go online and select plans,” says Nowicki. “And while the competition will theoretically make insurance cheaper, it is hard to say whether it will in actuality.”

Broader Coverage

Greater choice of plans is a big plus. And overall plan quality should also improve. Too often small businesses have had to settle for substandard plans that don’t go anywhere near matching the coverage of plans available to big business. That can make it difficult for small employers to compete for the best talent.

The new law changes that: Carriers are required to comply with minimum standards that erase some perceived abuses of years past. Here are some examples of the new parameters effective this year:

• A requirement that all policies cover children younger than 19 with pre-existing conditions. That mandate extends to all adults in 2014.

• A ban on lifetime dollar limits.

• Elimination of rescission—or the practice of canceling coverage after someone gets sick.

• A requirement to extend coverage to age 26 for dependent children. Finally, the legislation prohibits the practice of raising premiums when workers get sick. Carriers will be allowed to adjust rates only on the factors of family composition, tobacco use, age and employer location. That should eliminate the sudden spike in premiums that so often occur for small employers.

“Many times small businesses don’t even know why their insurance gets jacked up,” says Gardiner. “The smaller your company the worse it is. This reform bill will reduce such dramatic changes because everyone will be in one large pool.”

The end of price discrimination by health status, along with the bill’s requirements that everyone buy insurance, should encourage worker mobility: Thus, smaller employers will find it easier to recruit top performing workers from big business competitors.

The Challenge Ahead

Premiums represent a top-of-mind cost for every employer. But don’t overlook a hidden, and thus more insidious, expense: The administrative overhead required to understand and comply with the law’s provisions.

“People might not think about it, but there is a hidden cost in terms of labor and time required to manage all the changes required by the legislation,” says Cynthia A. Van Bogaert, partner and employee benefits attorney at the law firm of Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field, Madison, Wisc. (www.boardmanlawfirm.com).

“Employers will have to learn about the requirements of the legislation and monitor additional guidance from agencies such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.”

It can all seem like an unneeded headache at a time when business owners are already reeling from the effects of the severe recession. “Employers are all groaning at the thought of administering health insurance under this new legislation,” says Joan Smyth, partner at the New York City-based Mercer consulting firm (www.mercer.com).

“Some are saying ‘Maybe it’s easier to just pay the penalty [ required of larger employers who do not provide insurance ] and let employees buy whatever they want?’ That’s scary, because we do not know what the state exchanges will look like and how they will be priced.”

Employer concerns that higher carrier costs will trickle down to the real world of monthly premiums seems to ring alarm bells everywhere. “One area where Congress will come back to the table in future years is that of the overall issue of health care inflation,” says Gardiner.

“Some $2.4 trillion flows into the health care industry each year. Every part of the health care industry has a lobby group that says ‘Don’t tweak my part of the budget too much.’ So reforms to control costs have not gone far enough. Congress will have to come back and finish the job on cost containment.”

Nevertheless, Gardiner feels that the legislation in its current form was a necessary first step. “Yes, it will cost more to cover people,” says Gardiner. “But we cannot keep going down the road where we have 47 million people uninsured who are utilizing the emergency rooms. We are paying for that now, because each of our policies now pays $1,100 on average each year for uncompensated care.”

End Game

Now, let’s tackle those four questions that opened this article: Will your premiums go down? Yes, if you are one of the many small employers hit by huge price increases because of an uncompetitive marketplace or a serious illness by one employee. Perhaps only modestly, if at all, if you are a larger employer, in which case you may be pleasantly surprised at the greater “bang for the buck” you get in terms of more comprehensive care that you are able to obtain for you, your family, and your workers.

Will it be easier to shop for policies? Yes, once the state exchanges are up and running. Will the quality of the policies be higher in terms of coverage? Yes, this is a given. And will you be protected from those profit-busting price hikes that so often occur when one employee in a small group gets seriously ill? Yes, this illness will be cured by the legislation.

What should you do now? Start by putting together a game plan that tackles the provisions of the law that kick in this year and next. By all means, lay the groundwork for those provisions slated to take place over the next five years. However, bear in mind that the legislation’s finer points may get tweaked a lot—especially those long range items that do not go into effect until 2014. Watch for regulations interpreting the law from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (www.hhs.gov.)

“The scope of what the government has done with this legislation is big,” says Cynthia A. Van Bogaert, partner and employee benefits attorney at the law firm of Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field, Madison, Wisc. (www.boardmanlawfirm.com). “It has attempted to put a lot of moving pieces together, to weed out inefficiencies in the market and to create state wide buying exchanges. Time will tell how much impact this has on employers.”

In Part II coming in the Nov/Dec issue of LabTalk, we’ll cover how to get help with the new requirements, the costs involved and how the law helps optometrists, and therefore, the optical laboratory.


Labtalk June 2020