Health-care reform a pain for businesses

Health care is the most frequently discussed topic in the country at the moment. How proposed health-care legislation could affect employers was the subject of the talk delivered last week in Houma to the Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce by Pete Havel, executive director of the South Central Regional office of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Havel said, broadly, access to coverage must be addressed and wellness needs to be encouraged.

“But the devil’s in the details,” he said.

The number of people without health insurance in the U.S. is usually given as between 30 to 50 million, but the figures, when broken down, show many could have access to healthcare, according to Havel.

• Eleven million of the uninsured are eligible for government programs but are not taking advantage of them.

• Nine million earn more than $75,000 a year but choose not to be insured.

• Another 11 million are undocumented residents.

“Eight to 10 million really need help but it’s extremely costly,” he said.

Solutions to the problem run the gamut: tort reform; small business health-care plans that pool employees into purchasing groups; creating electronic records to reduce duplication, and encouraging doctors to move to other states.

Establishing a public health-care option is not viable, Havel said.

“Government is not only the referee but is one of the players,” he said. “Government is not an innovative entity. It can only be damaging.”

Havel gave as examples legislation currently being debated in Congress.

One House plan would require employers with payrolls over $500,000 to make health insurance available to employees or pay a payroll tax.

That plan would eliminate Health Savings Accounts, which allow the purchase of minimum catastrophic health coverage, and Flexible Savings Accounts, which permit tax-free deposits, Havel said.

Some provisions allow policyholders to keep their insurance, but the policies would change in around 5 years. The government would mandate a minimum set of benefits, he said. Hair plugs, in vitro fertilization and mental health parity could have to be included in a public health plan.

“People are asking more questions,” he said.

Legislation being debated in the Senate would require everyone to have health insurance.

“It’s one other thing to worry about,” Havel said.

All plans in Congress would cost more than a trillion dollars to implement, he said. In addition, surtax charges could push the marginal tax rate to 50 percent in 33 states.

Havel said U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-Napoleonville), as a conservative Blue Dog Democrat, will play a key role in health-care legislation.

The seats of 60 to 65 representatives are not secure. “Will they go for a market-based approach?” Havel said.

A plan that includes healthcare co-ops pushed by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, will have a hard time gaining approval because 60 votes are needed for passage.

“It’s another government-subsidized, government-run plan that will have disadvantages for private insurers,” Havel said.

“Government puts mandate after mandate on small business. You represent 70 to 80 percent of business in the country,” he told the chamber audience. “I don’t know if I’d look at adding employees. I don’t want to pay for new bureaucracy.”

Havel said the national chamber is opposing the Employee Free Choice Act, also called card check legislation, and cap and trade legislation.

Card check would allow workers to form a union if more than half sign cards, bypassing a formal election.

“You could see a whole lot of pressure placed on individuals to sign cards,” Havel said.

The legislation also forces binding arbitration between employers and union members if contract terms are not reached in 120 days.

“It’s another dagger to the heart of the economy,” he said.

Havel called cap and trade legislation, which limits carbon emissions from factories, “government restrictions on anything that pollutes.”

The legislation would cost $800 to $900 million in new taxes and eliminate nearly 800,000 jobs in Texas, he said.

Both card check and cap and trade need 60 votes to pass in the Senate.

Plans to change the U.S. health-care system are drawing fire from business owners, concerned that many proposals are too costly. Pete Havel, executive director of the South Central Regional Office of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said establishing a public health-care option is not viable. * File photo / Tri-Parish Times