Effects of health care bill will help some residents right away

Small business owners,trade groups worry that cost could hurt recovery

By Liv Osby • Greenville News

March 23, 2010

When her son was diagnosed with autism, Susan Sachs didn’t have coverage that paid for his treatment.

Sue Berkowitz feared what would happen to her son, who was born with a congenital heart defect, if she ever lost her insurance.

If President Obama signs the health care reform bill today as expected, that’s something they shouldn’t have to worry about any more because the bill immediately prohibits insurers from denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions.

As individuals began Monday trying to figure out what the bill means for them, companies generally said it’s too early to gauge the immediate impact of the bill as the country tries to pull out of a recession.

However, some small business owners and trade groups fear the legislation could raise the cost of doing business, reduce hiring and delay the economic recovery that is now underway.

“I have never seen our members more motivated or more concerned,” said Michelle Dimarob, lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business. “Overwhelmingly, they’re concerned about lower health care costs and whether the legislation is going to cost me more to do business.”

On a more personal level, Sachs said the right thing to do is to provide coverage for children with any medical condition. She is the co-founder of Hope Academy in Simpsonville, a school that offers programs for autistic children.

Therapy for autism costs around $40,000 a year, out of reach for most parents of autistic children, she said.

“For a lot of us … it’s been financially disastrous and as a parent, that’s very difficult, especially in this economy,” she said. “To me, it’s a moral issue. Children need to receive the care they need to receive.”

Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia which fights for health care for low-income residents, said her son, like others in the same situation, is now protected as a child and once he becomes an adult.

“I talk to concerned parents every day whose kids aren’t eligible for coverage, who are facing lifetime caps on coverage,” she said. “This is so exciting.”

However, Tim Justice, owner of Rescom Construction in Greenville and former chairman of the Greenville Chamber, said he is concerned about the effect of the bill on his 20-employee firm.

“I think most business people are scared it’s going to cause our recovery to slow down,” he said. “We as business owners are being put in a position that we will say, ‘We better not expand because I don’t know what it means.’?”

But Frank Knapp, president of the state Small Business Chamber of Commerce, sees the legislation as a positive.

Small businesses will gain from the recently passed version of health care, he said, adding he sees no downside for companies with fewer than 50 employees.

“It’s going to be a tremendous benefit” to small business, he said. It gives small businesses and their employees more options but “there is no mandate to offer insurance” for companies with fewer than 50 employees.

Medium-sized businesses could be affected by some of the provisions, Knapp said. For example, businesses with more than 50 employees that don’t offer coverage would be fined if any employee relies on government subsidies to buy coverage.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, said Monday that once the bill is signed, health care reform will be the law of the land, eliminating discrimination based on pre-existing conditions and extending insurance to young adults up to age 26.

It also will reduce bankruptcies caused by medical bills, he said, and provide tax credits for small businesses who offer coverage to their employees.

U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis said they will introduce legislation this week to repeal the bill.

“This bill is unconstitutional and it cannot be fixed,” said DeMint, R-Greenville. “If the president and Democrats were serious about true health care reform, there were many free-market solutions we could have easily passed.”

“No Congress can bind any future Congress,” said Inglis, R-Greenville. “Now we need to repeal the mistakes we’ve made in this flawed health care bill.”

Clyburn said there aren’t enough votes for their effort to succeed.

Dan O’Connell of Greenville said he is glad the bill will provide some immediate relief in the form of a $250 rebate for Medicare beneficiaries who reach the gap in coverage for their Part D prescription drug coverage, also called the donut hole. Last year, he spent $1,400 out of pocket upon hitting the gap.

“When Part D first came in, I hit the donut hole in December. Now it’s in August. The costs just continue to go up,” said the 72-year-old retired human resources executive. “This is a good start.”

Another immediate impact will be to allow adults with pre-existing conditions to obtain insurance in a temporary high-risk pool. And that’s an important benefit for people 50 to 64 who are among the fastest-growing group of uninsured, said Jane Wiley, director of South Carolina AARP.

Wiley said that an AARP member told her someone “had written on her chart that she had arthritis when she didn’t, so her rates went way up. Another was denied insurance because of injuries after she was hit by a drunk driver,” she said.

“Within three months after enactment, they would have access to high-risk pools that are supposed to be affordable and accessible.”

This year, the bill also would allow adult children to stay on their family policy until they are 26. That will mean less anxiety for them and their parents, said Teresa Arnold, legislative liaison for AARP South Carolina, whose daughter will graduate from college in December and now won’t have to be without coverage while looking for a job and her own insurance.

“This is going to mean a lot for people,” she said. “And it’s a smart way to extend coverage at no extra cost.”

For some folks, the impact of the bill won’t be felt for years to come, like Andy and Jenny Stark, now 62 and 60, respectively.

Jenny learned she had breast cancer right after Andy lost his job of 25 years, along with his insurance. Andy found a new job to pay for living expenses, but it had no insurance. So they have been struggling to pay tens of thousands in medical bills, able only to come up with about $125 a month to their health providers.

Jenny recently found a job with insurance, but her cancer care isn’t covered for a year because it’s a pre-existing condition. The ban on denying coverage for adults with pre-existing conditions doesn’t take effect until 2014.

By then, Andy, at least, will be eligible for Medicare. Still, he says the health care bill is a step in the right direction.

“I like that something’s going through to help everybody,” he said. “Something is better than nothing.”

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