Business owners grill Cardin over health care bill
Questions abound over tax credits, coverage, market domination in state
Dozens of small-business owners gathered Monday looking for answers from Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin about the tax credits, exemptions and other intricacies of the health insurance legislation being hammered out in the Senate this month.
Speaking at a roundtable discussion to more than 50 businesspeople at the Prince George's Economic Development Corp. offices in Largo, Cardin (D) said small businesses pay about 20 percent more than larger employers for the same insurance coverage. This amounts to $2.4 trillion nationally in health care costs for their employees over the next decade, which could result in 178,000 small-business jobs lost due to the rising costs, he said.
"Businesses don't have enough competition for insurance coverage," said Cardin, of Pikesville. "More than 71 percent of the insurance to businesses in Maryland is controlled by two companies," CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and UnitedHealthcare.
Terry L. Speigner, president of information technology company NGEN in Largo, said he has had to shift his higher insurance costs to his employees. Even if he could absorb the rising costs, he said, it would shortchange his business by forcing him to cut back on new hires.
Cardin said insurance rates have been increasing for small businesses at an average of 14 percent annually for the last two years, which small businesses have difficulty planning for, because the increases lack predictability.
John J. Keating Sr., president of Metropolitan Industries in Edmonston, which supplies specialty and custom building hardware, said the recession has shrunk his work force from more than 50 employees to 18, and he still struggles to understand and provide the various coverage components to his remaining staff. He hopes the new bill simplifies plans.
The $848 billion Senate bill, which Democratic leaders hope to pass by Christmas, would offer several new options to small businesses while also extending insurance coverage to 31 million uninsured Americans. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees about 96 percent of small businesses would be exempted from the requirement to provide health insurance, Cardin said. Small businesses with fewer than 25 employees and contributing to 50 percent of employee insurance premiums would also be eligible for a 30 percent tax credit by 2011, rising to almost 50 percent by 2013. Businesses with more than 50 employees that opt out of providing insurance would have to pay $750 for every full-time employee.
Venkat A.R. Subramanian, CEO of consulting company Angarai International in Largo, wanted to know if the tax credits would be available for employers already providing insurance for workers.
"Are you going to penalize me for being careful earlier?" he asked.
Cardin said he would have to look more into the bill before answering.
Subramanian also said his insurance options are already limited to CareFirst, as no other insurer covers employees from multiple states. He was concerned whether the Senate plan would address this problem.
The plan allows for businesses with fewer than 100 employees to participate in state-run health program exchanges, which would pool small businesses. Cardin said he would prefer regional exchanges, but that could take some time.
"What is the federal government doing about breaking up large insurance companies?" asked Mickey Oudit, president of Cosmos Air Purification Environmental Systems in Landover, referring to CareFirst's and United's domination of the Maryland market.
Cardin said regulating these situations is more complicated because the states, and not the federal government, regulate insurance companies.
Timothy J. Adams, president of federal contractor SA-TECH in Largo, said he was more concerned with the added cost of insurance reporting that could come through the new requirements.
Speigner said he spoke for the public's shared anxiety toward the likelihood of insurance companies jacking up their rates in the months before the bill takes effect.
"They're going to grab all the acorns they can," he said.
Cardin acknowledged the fear as valid, but added that increases are going to happen regardless of what Congress does, saying it is better to have a way to mitigate this in the future.