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(NECN: Jack Thurston, Montpelier, Vt.) - A series of forums launched Wednesday in Vermont, aimed at helping small businesses navigate the changing world of health care. Sweeping changes to insurance requirements take effect in January under the federal Affordable Care Act.
"Mainly, we just want to make the right decision for our employees," said Robert Guyer of Metal Flex Welded Bellows in Newport, Vt., describing the process of searching for the best health care options for workers.
Guyer and coworker Linda Bliss came to a forum in Montpelier Wednesday. It was hosted by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and the state’s online insurance marketplace, Vermont Health Connect. Guyer and Bliss were researching health insurance options on behalf of their company's owner. Metal Flex Welded Bellows makes parts for the semiconductor and aerospace sectors, and for other applications. "We have excellent employees, and we want to only do the best for them," Bliss said.
Guyer and Bliss said the company started early on its planning, but still, keeping up with changes has required a lot of attention. "There are so many questions; so many things we just don't know yet," Bliss said. "So we're just trying to find out as much as we can about it so we can make these deadlines."
The debate for companies with 50 or fewer full-time employees is whether to keep offering insurance, or to drop it all together. Instead, those companies would send workers to buy a plan on their own, with income-dependent federal tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies possibly making coverage cheaper.
"I think it's a very big decision, and not one employers are going to take lightly," said Shannon Wilson, with the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. "Especially employers who were offering insurance as a benefit of employment for a long time. It's tough. It's tough to know whether to continue to offer or drop."
The complex Affordable Care Act mandates Americans have health insurance or pay penalties. Individual states are soon opening online insurance marketplaces to help folks meet that requirement. Vermont's marketplace is called Vermont Health Connect. Consumers can use it to shop for plans this fall for coverage starting in 2014.
Vermont's director of health care reform, Robin Lunge, told New England Cable News she estimates about 36-40,000 Vermonters will get insurance through Vermont Health Connect via small businesses. Another 60,000 or more will purchase coverage as individuals, Lunge estimated.
Lunge acknowledged the process can seem overwhelming, but insisted it will have positive results. "What's most important is that we cover Vermonters, that it's good coverage, and as affordable as we can make it for folks," she said.
Lunge pointed Vermonters to the website for Vermont Health Connect, urging them to start comparing plans in October. She said she hopes Vermonters who need to make health care choices will have a plan picked by November, with bills going out in December. Coverage would begin in January, Lunge explained.
“They would have the tools available on Vermont Health Connect to compare plans apples-to-apples and choose the plan that's right for their business," Lunge said. "Or if you're an individual, you'd be able to purchase a plan that's right for your family with financial help."
According to the Associated Press, some employers said the dilemma is especially acute for businesses that have a wide disparity between the highest- and lowest-paid workers. The health overhaul law requires employers to make an all-or-nothing decision about coverage.
Diann Percy, part owner of an excavation business based in Stowe, Vt. told the AP it appeared lower-paid employees in her business would benefit from having their employer-sponsored health insurance stop. The company, which averages 45 employees but has just 20 who are employed year-round, is leaning strongly toward dropping coverage. "It's been a grueling decision," Percy said in an interview.
The AP reported that Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt., also reiterated his longstanding promise Wednesday that the marketplace will be used as a springboard toward creation of a "universal, publicly financed" health insurance system to be set up by 2017 with the goal of making health coverage independent of employment altogether.
The AP said Shumlin called creation of the exchange "a good step, and we're committed to getting out of it the most that we possibly can." But, he warned, "it doesn't solve all of our problems" - chief among them the need to stem recent increases in health care costs.
As for Robert Guyer and Linda Bliss, they said the forum helped them figure out a few things. "We had some questions about part-time; who's considered a full-time employee and part-time employee," Guyer told NECN, as he went back to Newport to continue researching one of the most pressing issues facing small businesses today.
Wilson said more information on upcoming forums is available through the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, or from regional chambers of commerce.