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Small business owners excited about health program, but some left out

August 31, 2008|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Sharpsburg auto repair shop owner Bryan Gabriel is excited about Maryland's new health insurance subsidy plan for small businesses.

It means affordable coverage for him and his wife, who share a more expensive policy now, and also for their two B&B Automotive mechanics, who have no such insurance.

"So, usually, medical bills are paid out of your pocket - that's the most expensive health care there is," he said.

Other small business owners are excited, too.

But not Tom McCall of Tom's Accounting Service in Leitersburg.

"It doesn't help me," he said. "You need two or more employees that are working 30 hours or more a week, which I don't have."

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Others - including small businesses struggling in today's economy to pay for health care plans they already offer their employees - likely won't be happy either, said Dr. Rex Cowdry, executive director of the Maryland Health Care Commission.

"If they've been offering a small group plan, they are not eligible" for the state's new Health Insurance Partnership assistance program.

"In some ways, it's not fair," Cowdry said after meeting with small-business owners here last week about the new plan.

But, he told a reporter, it would be "completely unaffordable" for Maryland to try to subsidize businesses that already have their own health plans.

"The program has a specific focus," Cowdry said. "The focus is reaching the uninsured."

Maryland has set aside $15 million to help small businesses and their employees pay for health care insurance.

This year, it hopes to enroll as many as 1,500 of the 37,000 small businesses in the state that don't already offer such insurance coverage.

Signing up

Patti Hull, a longtime owner of a Hagerstown salon called HairPort 3, is planning for her business to be among the first to sign up.

Hull, 55, said she and her two partners have health insurance through their spouse's workplaces, but their two other employees don't have coverage.

"It's very difficult for privately owned salons to provide health care for employees" because it's normally so expensive, Hull said. "We can't afford to give them health care insurance because otherwise, we wouldn't be able to stay in business."

She said the benefit is desirable because it's a way to help keep your employees, but "a large majority" of salon workers don't have insurance because of the expense.

"And, people who come into the salon who are small-business owners themselves, they have the same problem," Hull said. "... The other alternative you have, was to get your own insurance individually, and that really ended up being a hardship because some of those were single parents, so they needed as much of their pay as they can to be able to take home and be able to survive."

So, tough as it is right now for businesses as well as employees to afford another expense, Maryland's new health aid plan is "absolutely" a good opportunity, Hull said.

"I'm glad it's come finally, but it could have been a couple years ago," she said. "It would have helped a lot. But I'm an optimist" the economy will rebound.

Also glad for Maryland's new plan are Chuck and Tammy Spitzer, owners of Celebrate Health & Wellness, a holistic health solutions studio in Hagerstown.

They have no employees working at least 30 hours per week - another requirement - but both will be better off in the new plan, Chuck Spitzer said. They have insurance now through Maryland's high-risk program, but it's expensive because both have pre-existing conditions.

The new partnership plan will make their premiums much more affordable, he said.

On the down side of Maryland's new plan is Doris Pierce of Atlee House Caf, a bed-and-breakfast in New Windsor, Md.

Pierce, after sitting for an hour and a half through most of Cowdry's talk last week, discovered her business isn't eligible yet because it hasn't existed at least a year.

"We just started in May," she told Cowdry.

"There's no way to open up to a new business," he replied.

But, Cowdry said he expects that even if so many businesses sign up this year that no more are allowed, others will be allowed in later if some of those original ones drop out.

And state lawmakers "have indicated" they want to expand the plan in its second year, he said.

A good start

Ellen Valentino, Maryland state director for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), said this year's plan is a good start.

Valentino, who attended last week's meeting, told a reporter afterward that "NFIB has clearly heard from its members that health care affordability is their No. 1 issue.

"...Do we think this is the only solution to the small-business community? No, we don't."

Valentino said NFIB represents 4,000 small businesses in Maryland, making it the state's largest small-business organization.

The new plan "is an opportunity for a segment of our membership to benefit," Valentino said. "There are other things clearly that need to be done. The issue of affordability for those who struggle to pay now needs to be addressed."

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