November 16, 2012

M.D. Harmon: Businesses already gearing up for new health care law

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told people with questions about Obamacare that "you'll have to pass the law in order to see what's in it," and she was right.

Even though the program doesn't fully become effective until 2014, the pressures are being felt right now by businesses large and small, from Walmart to Applebee's restaurants to the Papa John's Pizza franchise.

U.S. employers are now "choosing strategies" to move forward under the new health care law (whose formal name is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), reporter Kara Spak wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times this week.

"Businesses are being forced to take a hard and fast look at how to handle the shift in health-care benefits and potential costs" that are part of the law, Spak writes.

As she notes, "By 2014, employers with the equivalent of at least 50 or more full-time workers will be required to provide health care for those who work 30 hours or more a week. If they don't, they'll have to pay a $2,000 penalty per employee after the first 30 workers (not the 59th)."

Also at issue are the establishment of health insurance "exchanges" at the state level designed to let people without insurance from their employers find it from other sources.

The cost is estimated to vary from $10 million to $100 million per year, depending on the size of the state.

Some states, including Maine, have so far not established them, and Dec. 14 is the deadline for states to decide to either create their own or shift the task to the federal government, which has no money budgeted to cover their expenses, according to the libertarian Cato Institute.

Spak said that it was originally thought that few employers would choose to pay the penalty, which is substantially less than the normal cost of providing insurance, or shift toward moving jobs from full-time to part-time to avoid the mandate.

But, she adds, "A survey by Mercer, a human resources and finance consulting group, showed that 18 percent of employers with any part-time employees are planning to adjust some hours so fewer employees work 30 hours or more a week."

According to Howard Rich, chairman of a free-market lobbying group, Americans for Limited Government, firms such as Darden Restaurants, which runs the Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Longhorn chains and employs 185,000 workers, and grocery chain giant Kroger Supermarkets, have both said they will limit some current part-timers and new hires to a 28-hour work week.

Betsy McCaughey, author of "Decoding the Obama Health Law" and a former lieutenant governor of New York, wrote this week in the New York Post that Obamacare's rules will add $1.79 an hour to the cost of each full-time employee.

But opting to pay the fine instead will add 98 cents to the cost of labor, a figure that would still affect some employers' work force decisions.

Since that would greatly reduce or even eliminate the profit margins many small businesses currently enjoy, analysts expect employment to drop and many workers to be forced to buy insurance in the new exchanges.

There are penalties for individuals who refuse coverage, too.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states can reject the law's mandate to finance an expansion of their Medicaid rolls, so fewer people are likely to be covered that way.

Meanwhile, the many Americans who realize capital gains from the sales of investments -- including the family homestead -- on Jan. 1 will face a new 3.8 percent tax on their profits.

Additionally, bureaucratic costs to enforce the new law are estimated by federal sources to climb by $40 billion a year by 2020.

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