New Hampshire businesses weigh benefits, uncertainty of Obamacare options
When Nancy Clark purchased Glen Group, an advertising and marketing agency in North Conway, 15 years ago, one of the first things she did was offer her employees health benefits.
Now with eight employees and two open positions, she still offers insurance and pays 50 percent of the premium costs. For the past three years, she’s been getting a tax credit of $1,200 toward that cost.
To keep the credit next year, she will need to purchase her employees insurance through a new marketplace, one of the key pieces of President Obama’s landmark legislative effort to ensure every American has health care coverage, commonly called Obamacare.
“I’ll be waiting on the front step,” she said. “I’ll be there, knocking on the door.”
Not literally, though.
The Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP, is a new website and call center where businesses with fewer than 50 employees can go to buy insurance. Businesses with fewer than 25 employees, like Glen Group, can get tax credits toward the cost of their contribution to the plans’ premiums.
The SHOP was supposed to open tomorrow, but last week, federal officials announced that a technical glitch will delay the opening until Nov. 1.
“If there was a technical difficulty, I’m glad they’re waiting,” Clark said Friday after the announcement. “And I’m glad it’s just a month.”
She’s not alone, but many other New Hampshire business owners and representatives said they will sit this year out, instead of trying to weigh all the new options before Jan. 1.
In New Hampshire, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield is the only company selling plans on the marketplace this year, though Harvard Pilgrim Health Care is slated to join in 2015. The rates for Anthem’s small-business plans were not yet available, company spokesman Christopher Dugan said last week.
“The deadline is too close to our fiscal year end, and all the normal business craziness associated with that,” said Jodie Lucci, director of finance and administration at LighTec Inc. in Merrimack.
“The health insurance industry is learning as they go, and I prefer to let them get their ducks in a row before jumping in. There is enough of a learning curve and many action items even without using the” SHOP.
John Packard, president and CEO of Scotia Technologies in Laconia and BTS-Patriot in Dover, said he’s been looking for information about what small business rates will be, but for now, he’s in a holding pattern.
“I don’t believe we’ll see anything until after the middle of November because that’s generally how it works,” he said.
Scotia, with 52 employees, is too big for the SHOP, but with only 30 employees, BTS-Patriot would be eligible.
“I’m always interested in what’s out there, sure,” Packard said. “I can’t say I’m against the (SHOP) or against the Affordable Care Act, because the system that we had was broken. But is this a step in the right direction? I don’t know. We’re all gonna know in 10 years. Like any new program, I think there are going to be some glitches.”
BTS-Patriot could, without facing any penalties, send employees to get insurance on their own on an individual marketplace, but while that move could save the company money, Packard has concerns.
“Every year on the anniversary of our health insurance, I stand in front of our employees, and I give them bad news when the rates go up, and they always go up,” he said.
“If health care was completely out of my hands, I’d be really cool with that, but those young invincibles, they’d rather have a new car, so they’ll buy cheaper insurance if it’s up to them. . . . They’ll make a financial decision, and we haven’t been doing that. We want our employees to have good health care, not illness care.”
Steve Robinson has also looked at letting the 13 employees at Checkmate Payroll in Concord buy their own insurance on the individual marketplace, because many may be eligible for tax credits toward their premiums and other costs, he said.
When Robinson hired his first employee in 1987, he offered to purchase health insurance benefits for him. It was expensive, and it was a headache, but he felt it was the right thing to do.
Every year, he’d sit down with his insurance agent, who would lay out the options: “Anthem, Anthem or Anthem,” Robinson said.
All these years later, even after Robinson sort of, kind of retired from his role as president at Checkmate Payroll in Concord, he’s still dealing with the expense and headache of employee health insurance.
He’s consulting for the company, which is now run by his son Josh. Steve Robinson is the one who’s waiting for the new marketplace to open, eager but cautious.
“I’m very interested in getting on the SHOP, seeing what it’s all about and how the premiums compare to what we’ve had before, which was basically just whatever was available,” said Robinson. “Once I have the information, we’ll try to see what makes the most sense.”
“I’m not sure I’m feeling all that much better, but I am a fan of the fact something is being done,” he said. “What I’ve been hearing – if you ignore the zealots that are just against Obamacare – what I’m hearing is that there are cost reductions being realized in other states. I’m cautiously optimistic that this is a step in the right direction.”
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)