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Small businesses say ‘Help’!

Elaine_Grace_and_Brad_Ashwell.jpg

By Carol Gentry
7/21/2009 © Health News Florida

Elaine Grace of Bali-Hi Trading Co. in Tallahassee could remain insured only by working a second job, since the premiums cost almost as much as the rent.

Grace and Ashwell

But she also knows the cost of going without coverage. Her uninsured sister in Tampa was recently diagnosed at a hospital emergency room with a late-stage cancer that may have been less serious if she could have afforded primary care, Grace said. "Now the government will pay for something that possibly could have been prevented if she had access to preventative care!" she wrote.

Grace is one of 343 small-business owners, including some in Florida, who responded to a national survey by U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).  The report "The Small Business Dilemma: How rising health care costs are tough on small business," was released today at a press conference in Tallahassee, where Grace talked about her situation. 

FPIRG health advocate Brad Ashwell said the survey found that small-business owners want to offer coverage because it helps them attract and keep good workers. About 4 out of 5 who don't offer it would like to but can't afford it, he said.

“Rising health care costs are choking America's job-creating small businesses just when we need them the most. It's long past time for comprehensive health reform," Ashwell said. 

Instead of leading on the issue, he said, the national Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business "are playing politics" and impeding reform efforts. 

Lifting the burden of health costs from small businesses would save 128,000 jobs in Florida, he said. 

Several survey respondents wrote notes about how the health-care issue  has affected their business. Most said they didn't think anyone in Washington was paying attention to their needs.

 "The interests of small businesses aren't recognized in the debate," wrote Paul, of Grove Inn Country Guesthouse in Homestead, on his survey form. "It's all about big money and it's too politicized."

He added: "Healthcare is a trap for small businesses: One incident and the insurance bankrupts the business. Insurance is nothing more than a coupon for an overpriced commodity."

Eric Crosier, who doesn't give the name of his business or his home town, said his wife's job covers them both. She recently had to turn down her dream job because it offered less health coverage and would have forced them to pay $14,000 a year more, he wrote.

Another respondent, an employee at a Bagel Bagel somewhere in Florida, says he works three part-time jobs. His wife, a teacher, is losing her job in September "so me, my wife and my 6-month-old son will be out of healthcare."

An unnamed respondent from Payless Carpet Cleaners in Miami Beach wrote: "Healthcare is absolutely crazy, there's no doubt about it." When that business wanted to insure its employees, the form says, options were so complicated and expensive that the owners gave up.

The owner of a bed and breakfast in Miami said she's looking for insurance that's reasonable because she's paying $2,000 a month for four people. It's either the insurance or the electric bill, she said. "As a 54-year-old woman, I'm still considered of child-bearing age, which is insane," she wrote.

Last time health reform was debated in Washington, the small-business lobby and Chamber of Commerce were instrumental in killing it, objecting to the requirement that all companies provide coverage for employees or pay a fee.

A few months ago, the NFIB joined with consumer groups and others to demand health reform. But the bill that several House committees came up with, the "Affordable Health Choices Act," has drawn a protest from NFIB.
 
In a letter sent to members of Congress last week, an NFIB official protested a requirement that it said would force employers to pay 72.5 percent of the cost of covering workers or face a payroll tax. But the group approves of one part of the bill, a virtual marketplace where insurers can compete.

The PIRG report says the current insurance marketplace favors large employers that are relatively cheap and easy to manage. Small employers "face unpredictable changes in costs, and far too often they are forced to choose between covering employees and the very survival of their businesses."

--Contact Carol Gentry at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.