Chamber official warns of looming changes in health benefit policies

January 11, 2012|By HEATHER KEELS |
  • Ronald Wineholt, Maryland Chamber of Commerce vice president for government affairs, chats Wednesday with Donna Marriott following his remarks about health benefit policies during a Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting in Halfway. Marriott is director of human resources at Hagerstown Community College.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

HALFWAY — State businesses should be prepared for major changes in health benefit policies regardless of the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case challenging federal health care reform, a Maryland Chamber of Commerce official warned Wednesday.

“Even if parts of the federal law were struck down — if the individual mandate were struck down — I think the Maryland General Assembly would very likely step in and put similar requirements in place here in the state of Maryland,” said Ronald Wineholt, the state chamber’s vice president for government affairs.

By individual mandate, Wineholt was referring to the federal law’s controversial requirement that nearly all Americans buy health insurance by 2014 or face financial penalties.

“No matter what your feelings may be about the virtues or lack of virtues in the federal law, I think this is something we have to come to grips with here in the state of Maryland,” he said.

Wineholt spoke at an Eggs and Issues breakfast held by the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Manpower Staffing Services at the Ramada Plaza Hotel.

He focused his presentation on a new Maryland Health Benefit Exchange being set up to sell individual and small group health insurance plans starting in the fall of 2013.

“What they’re going to try to do through this is use the health exchange as basically a government setup, parallel means of selling health insurance to individuals, to small groups, and so forth, and the hope is that this mechanism they set up will be able to provide more competition, perhaps some cost savings, and time will tell,” he said.

The exchange also will facilitate enrollment in state Medicaid and children’s health programs, Wineholt said.

The federal health care law provides significant subsidies for individual health insurance plans for low-income individuals, which will be available only through the exchange, not through the private sector, he said.

The subsidies will be available for individuals making less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level, he said.

Tax credits will be available for employers with fewer than 50 employees and average wages of less than $25,000 who buy small-group health insurance through the exchange, Wineholt said.

“Clearly, we all hope that the exchange will be working to bring insurance to people who don’t already have it,” he said. “You’ve got about 700,000 individuals in Maryland who lack any health insurance, and this is certainly a prime mechanism for them to get it. But, again, we don’t want (the exchange) poaching the private marketplace, where they’re simply taking people who are insured today and moving them to the exchange.”

Another important consideration is how to fund the exchange, Wineholt said. Consultants have estimated the cost to run the exchange could begin at $30 million in 2014 and grow to $60 million in subsequent years, he said.

Exchange board members are tentatively recommending funding it through a broad-based assessment, perhaps on health insurance policies in the state, as well as through transaction fees for people who buy policies through the exchange, Wineholt said.

“The board takes the position that the benefits they’re providing are a benefit to everybody ... whether you have health insurance or not, the exchange is a good thing and everybody therefore benefits and should chip in,” he said.

Robert C. Jeffers of Manpower said he thinks most chamber members realize the current health care system has problems, but he is not sure they realize the changes that are ahead.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Jeffers said. “I don’t think many people in this room know what’s going to happen, but something’s going to happen, and we’re all going to have to deal with it.”

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