By Katie Dahlstrom
---- — CLINTON — Brenda and Chuck Thornton want to take care of their employees. But the Homer’s Deli and Sweetheart Bakery owners are riddled with frustration because of uncertainty surrounding the Affordable Care Act.
Nearly 50 area employer representatives attended a program about the Affordable Care Act on Thursday to gain insight into what kinds of impacts the federal healthcare reform legislation will have on their businesses.
They left with more than additional knowledge.
“I am more frustrated than ever,” Brenda said after the two-hour session, which was put on through a collaboration between the Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce, the Clinton Regional Development Corp., the Iowa State University Extension office and Clinton Community College.
“My concern is my employees are like my family and there’s so much we’re going to be required to do and the only answer to questions about this is ‘maybe,’” Brenda said. “I want to take care of my employees, but I don’t know what this means.”
Alice Helle, a lawyer with BrownWinick and Sean Yolish, the vice president of benefits for Merit Resources tried to explain some of the mandates and regulations that employers will be subject to under the law.
The pair touched on a slew of topics such as the requirements for both large and small employers, options for providing coverage, individual mandates and the penalties employers could face.
The Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP exchange generated a great deal of discssion. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have to set up a SHOP exchange that enables small businesses (those with 50 or fewer employees in Iowa) to offer health insurance although they are not required to under the healthcare reform.
Through the exchange, employers will designate how much they would like to cover of their employees’ insurance. A handful carriers have been approved to be in Iowa’s exchange. Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which provides three-quarters of all policies sold to individuals and small businesses in Iowa, has opted to wait until 2015 to participate in the exchange.
The only way small businesses will be able to get a small business tax credit for providing insurance is by participating in the SHOP exchange. If the business participates, the tax credit will last two years, Yolish explained.
Chuck and Brenda are among the 36.5 percent of small businesses in Iowa that offer their employees health insurance, which grants them the small business tax credit. Their nine full-time employees take advantage of the benefit and the couple would like to continue providing it as well as receiving their small business tax credit, but they fear the impersonal nature that will come with the SHOP exchange being handled online.
“I don’t want to sit in front of the computer getting health insurance,” Brenda said. “I want to be able to walk down the street and talk to someone.”
The Thorntons aren’t the only ones with concerns about the legislation.
Chamber President and CEO Nathan Sondgeroth said the frustration that he hears from Chamber members is rooted in the uncertainty surrounding the legislation and looming mandates, many of which are set to state in January.
“People are anxious. They are anxious about what it will actually mean,” Sondgeroth said. “Even the terms that are used. We can hear these terms, but what do they mean? There’s also anxiety about the uncertainty at the government level.”
Michelle Griffin, who handles HR and insurance for The Arch in Clinton doesn’t know how her non-profit organization’s 33 employees, including 13 full-time, will be affected or who to turn to for clarification.
“I’m concerned with the cost and how that’s going to affect our employees in an industry that doesn’t pay much,” Griffin said.
The Affordable Care Act requires everyone to have health insurance or face penalties, which means employees will have to seek out their own insurance if they are not covered by their employers.
“I don’t know how we would be able to compensate,” Griffin said. “This will have a medium to large impact, but there are still lots of unanswered questions. The unknown is the scary part and really there is no one to call to answer questions.”
State Sen. Rita Hart also attended Thursday’s presentation. The Wheatland Democrat applauded employer’s initiative to learn more about the law, which she believes is the number one issue on Iowan’s minds because of its widespread impact.
“There’s been so much information about this legislation since it was passed, some of it true, some of it not true and it’s caused a lot of worry,” Hart said. “This is a law that hasn’t been very popular, but it hasn’t really been given a chance to succeed yet.I hope in the end everyone can come together and work toward giving more people affordable and accessible healthcare.”
Presenters and area officials agreed the frustration seen Thursday is common among small business owners.
“Large businesses — and by that I mean those with 500 or more employees — have entire HR departments. They may have to add a couple of full-time employees to handle this, but they can do that,” Yolish said. “With a small business, they don’t have someone who can spell ‘HR’ and they get this book of regulations thrown at them.”
During their presentation Yolish and Helle briefly touched on the touted benefits of the legislation such as children being able to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26, capped premiums for families living at different income levels, and the face that insurance companies can’t discriminate based on pre-exisiting conditions.
“What about the cost of all those things?” Yolish said. “The question remains will the costs outweigh the benefits.”