Tony Dobrowolski: Health care storm is coming



It's coming, it's confusing and businesses need to prepare for it now.

We're talking about the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's health care law that Congress passed in 2010.

After surviving 37 attempts, so far, by Republicans in the House of Representatives to overturn the bill over the last three years, the major changes provided in the legislation begin to take effect this fall and into 2014.

You're not alone if you don't understand all the implications and new provisions. About half the people surveyed this spring by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation felt they didn't have enough information to understand how the law would affect their families, according to The Associated Press. Around 30 percent of the people included in the income group that will benefit the most from the changes - those with an annual household income of less than $30,000 - thought that the law had already been repealed, the AP reports.

For business owners in Massachusetts, the law becomes even more confusing because our state already has universal health care. The definitions in the new federal legislation supersede some of the ones set by the state that are already in effect.

For example: Under current state law, companies with no more than 10 employees are obligated to provide access to health insurance. Under the federal law that goes into effect on Jan. 1, if you have no more than 50 employees you're required to provide affordable insurance to your workers.

"This is going to affect everybody differently depending on the size of the employee group," said Holly Taylor, the vice president of True North Insurance Agency of North Adams, which is an employee benefits agency.

"There will be different issues with employers who have over 100 employees, with those who have over 150, and small group employers with less than 50 employees," she said. "We'll really know more in probably a month or two when we see how the [insurance] carriers are going to rate the small groups."

It's no wonder a prominent Berkshire business person refers to the ACA as "quite a piece of work."

So how do business owners prepare? Probably the best way is to learn as much as you can about the new law.

The Berkshire Chamber of Commerce took a step in that direction on June 21, when it held a forum designed to familiarize the owners of large Berkshire businesses with the new components contained in the ACA.

"All business owners have to recognize what the threshold is for the employer responsibility for the new law," said Berkshire Chamber President and CEO Michael Supranowicz.

"We're going to have several more seminars in late summer or early fall for small businesses, because most of the information for small businesses is coming out in the next few months," he said.

The forum that the Chamber hosted on June 21 attracted 40 participants, the maximum number that the event would allow.

"I think we knew there would be demand," Supranowicz said. "We were very happy with the turnout."

Supranowicz said the Chamber held the first meeting to discuss one of the major changes that will affect Berkshire business owners: a provision that will require employers to track the hours of part-time and variable hour employees to determine if they qualify for health insurance. This provision especially affects local businesses involved in the seasonal tourism industry.

According to Supranowicz, in the past employers have been required to use the total number of their full-time employees as a guideline to determine who should be provided with health insurance. Under the ACA, part-time employees must also be considered when deciding who receives health insurance, with a 30-hour work week used as the determining factor.

In other words, companies in the tourism industry with less than 50 full- time employees would have no responsibility for providing health insurance to their employees under the current system. But when the hours of their part-time or seasonal employees are added in, it could put those employers over the 50 employee threshold that is required under the ACA.

"The reason we thought that this was important is because a lot of employers in Berkshire County have seasonal or parttime help," Supranowicz said, "so we wanted to make sure they understand that when they fill out their paperwork for employee counts they'll have to go back six months to count the number of employees . We want them to understand the responsibility that they had."

And, this is just one of the changes.

Do yourself a favor.

Stay informed.


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