Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Today's Oregonian, 1/26/2010, published a commentary I submitted (http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2010/01/health_care_reform_changing_th.html) . Since there were some errors in their editing I thought I would post my original submission.

"As the final details are being negotiated on the health care reform legislation, I can’t help but think back to a year ago when I began to speak out on this issue. As a small business owner, getting involved in advocating for health care reform was an easy choice for me. Sure, I was inspired by the historic election of President Obama last year and excited by his early commitment to make health care reform a priority. But that wasn’t the clincher.

Just before the President was sworn in, I got a notice that our insurance rates were going up 13%. Well, it’s that time of year again and last week I got this year’s bad news: another 11% hike. You do the math and it’s scary: our staff’s health care costs now exceed $90,000 a year, an increase of 100 percent over the last eight years. It’s that kind of math that produced another auto mechanic for health care reform: yours truly.

My wife and I have operated our auto repair business for 27 years. We’ve always offered health insurance for our employees, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it makes good business sense.

Cars are very complex and, in our industry, servicing them properly requires high-level employees. We need well-trained technicians who pay close attention to detail. Our workers are very skilled and very committed. We have people on our team who’ve worked here twenty years; our longest-serving employee just retired after 26 years. I don’t want my customers to even think about going anywhere else but our shop… and I really don’t want my technicians to think of going anywhere else either.

We offer full health care coverage for all our regular employees and their families, but the premiums far outstrip any reasonable cost for what we receive. With that 100 percent increase over the last eight years, rising health insurance costs hinder our ability to provide well-deserved raises and other needed benefits. While good health care coverage helps us keep good employees, the increased cost of health insurance premiums is unsustainable.

The game of health care is rigged against small businesses in two key ways that need to be fixed.

First, as a small business that pays for good coverage for our employees, the expense puts us at a competitive disadvantage to other similar businesses that shirk that responsibility. We need reform to level the playing field for business owners like me by calling on all employers to step up, to be responsible employers and do their part. The final bill must ensure a system of shared responsibility so that small businesses—the engine of our economy—can compete and thrive.

Second, small businesses have no bargaining power in the current structure of state-based small group health insurance markets. The insurance companies have us over a barrel. That’s why we need a national health insurance exchange where businesses and individuals can shop for coverage that meets our needs. A national exchange will give us real options: a wide array of competing providers offering different plans with varying benefit levels and prices. No more discrimination based on pre-existing conditions. Plans will have to be certified and meet a basic standard of benefits. The exchange will give us the benefit of real choices with the bargaining power that only large employers enjoy now.

The bill Congress is poised to pass is historic. Sure, we could find a hundred and one things in it to complain about, but what we have is an inspiring start, the beginning of a process to fix our broken health care system. We should not allow a minority of politicians who are dead-set against meaningful reform to derail this hard-won legislation. For me as a small business owner, this long-overdue health care reform can’t come soon enough."