Business owners express mixed view of health care

NEW YORK (AP) — Small business owners told a congressional hearing Wednesday that they're still uncertain about how they'll be affected by the full implementation of the health care law — and whether they'll be able to afford coverage for their employees.

The hearing by the House Small Business Committee on the impact of the law showed that owners are split over whether the Affordable Care Act will help them save on insurance or drive their costs higher. The law takes effect Jan. 1.

Bill Gouldin, owner of Strange's Florists, Greenhouses and Garden Centers in the Richmond, Va., area, told the committee that the law's definition of a full-time employee as one who works 30 or more hours a week would send his health care costs up sharply.

Gouldin said his company has between 120 and 150 employees, depending on the season, and a mix of full-timers and part-timers. Strange's pays for health insurance for full-time workers. Gouldin said the company's health insurance costs have risen from 0.44 percent of sales in 1968 to 2 percent last year, and that the rising cost of coverage has held wages down at his company.

Gouldin warned that he might have to cut workers' hours to between 20 and 27 ½ hours per week.

"(Many) people will be required to lose needed hours of work and income. Millions will be forced to work two part-time jobs," he said.

Kevin Tindall's plumbing company was hit by a 9.7 percent premium increase in 2011 and a 9.3 percent increase in 2012. He's worried about another big increase under the ACA.

"We're not being able to predict the costs going forward," said Tindall, owner of Tindall & Ranson Plumbing and Heating, in Princeton, N.J.

Questions from committee members fell along party lines, with Republicans who oppose the law passed in 2010 predicting it will force small companies to stop hiring.

"All I'm seeing is a wet blanket on job creation," said Rep. Chris Collins, R-NY.

The ranking Democrat on the committee, New York's Nydia Velazquez, said small businesses should see lower costs for health care because there will be a larger pool of people with insurance across the country that would bring down the price of premiums.

Owners aren't expected to know until the fourth quarter what their costs will be because states are still in the process of setting up exchanges where companies will be able to shop for health coverage. Companies with 50 or more workers will be required to give their employees affordable coverage. Those with fewer workers have the option of buying insurance for them.

Louisa McQueeney, chief financial officer of Palm Beach Groves in Lantana, Fla., spoke in support of the law, which she said has already cut her company's health insurance costs even though it has yet to be fully implemented.

McQueeney said the passage of the law meant her company's 2012 premiums were nearly unchanged from the previous year. The company got a tax credit that cut her costs by 10 percent, or $7,400, in 2011. And Palm Beach Groves received a rebate on its premiums of nearly $1,600 because its insurer had not met the law's requirement that 80 percent of premiums be spent on medical care.

"Counting it all up — the stable rate, the tax credit, the rebate check — last year, our business saw our health insurance costs cut about 12 percent, the first time ever, thanks to the Affordable Care Act," said McQueeney, whose company had six year-round workers and three that worked seasonally in 2012. She said she expects to continue providing health coverage.

She said she's looking forward to the ACA taking full effect because one of its provisions prevents premium hikes based on health problems and claims made my employees. She noted that her employees are in their 50s and 60s and are likely to need more health care.

McQueeney's company will not be required to provide insurance because it has fewer than 50 employees. But she said all employers providing insurance will help bring down medical costs for the entire country.

Some of the premium increases under the ACA could cause sticker shock for small businesses, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank.

The average increase for younger and healthy individuals, including small employers, in five cities would be 169 percent, he said. But he also noted that older and less healthy individuals could see their premiums drop 22 percent because of the wider pool of insured people, and the ACA provisions prohibiting higher costs for sicker people.

The hearing in Washington was streamed live over the Internet.

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