Column: Small-business owners should prepare for health care reform

Guest columnistSeptember 23, 2013 

If you run a small business, prepping for health care reform is likely among a laundry list of to-do’s.

Small-business owners can’t afford to wait any longer to educate themselves about the consequences of the new law. The federal Health Insurance Marketplace has an Oct. 1 launch date, and the Affordable Care act takes effect Jan. 1.

The individual enrollment period ends March 31, 2014, although there is no enrollment period for small businesses.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the law’s implications for businesses with 50 or fewer workers.

For starters, companies that plan to stay with an existing provider should make sure the plans offered to employees during the fall enrollment period comply with the minimum value and affordability standards required by the new law.

These include plans that cover at least 60 percent of health care expenses and have premiums not exceeding 9.5 percent of the employee’s household income.

Those companies may also want to weigh whether to continue to offer coverage to their employees. In some cases, employees may qualify for government subsidies if they secure individual insurance through the marketplace instead of an employer. The new law only provides those subsidies to individuals who don’t have the option of purchasing insurance through their employer.

Your employees might be better off if you don’t offer coverage.

If you decide to continue to offer coverage to employees – or to do so for the first time – you have a couple of new options.

Some insurance companies may offer the chance to renew existing coverage starting Dec. 1 instead of Jan. 1. This gives business owners a full year to decide what to do.

Purchasing through the marketplace might be a compelling option, too. The benefit is for businesses with 25 or fewer full-time workers with an average worker salary of less than $50,000. By purchasing plans on the marketplace, they can qualify for federal tax credits worth up to 50 percent of the employer-paid portion of an insurance premium.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (which underwrites the cost of Shop Talk but doesn’t play a role in its content selection) will offer up to 10 of its small-business plans to be purchased through the Marketplace site. No other provider in the state is offering small-business coverage there.

To handle customer questions or concerns, the company’s 2,000 state agents have spent a year training about the marketplace and the new law, said Kelly Wage, Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s director of marketing for group markets.

The company also created a website ( www.nchealthreform.com) to educate consumers and business owners about the health care changes.

An important point to remember is that employers with 50 or fewer workers won’t be fined if they don’t offer coverage to their workers. However, employees could face penalties if they’re caught without policies next year. So employers can do a service to their staff by educating and preparing themselves for this new world of health care.

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