By Robert Behre | The Post and Courier

U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn was meeting Saturday afternoon with about 150 Lowcountry residents interested in health care reform when his Blackberry went off with some fresh news on the topic.

Back in Washington, House members working on the bill had reached an agreement on how to define small businesses — those that would be exempt from a requirement either to provide health insurance to their employees or to pay an 8-percent surcharge.

Clyburn, D-S.C., then shared the content of the e-mail with the crowd. “It went over very well,” he said. “In fact, they applauded.”

While many inside the International Longshoremen’s Association Hall told Clyburn of their difficulty in getting insurance or paying for their medical treatment, several small-business owners also spoke of their concerns over making ends meet.

Frank Knapp, president of the S.C.

Small Business Chamber of Commerce, said businesses are not the monolithic obstacle to reform that they were when President Bill Clinton tried to tackle the issue in 1993.

“There are business organizations that understand we need to have quality, affordable health care for everyone in this country,” he said. “I am also confident that Congressman Clyburn and Congressman (John) Spratt and congressmen in the other party will not allow small businesses to suffer.”

Charles Williams, president of Electronic Health Network in Charleston, said the status quo poses a major threat to small businesses. He said half of small-business owners in this state are insured through their spouse.

“I personally know some business owners who have had to shut their doors, shut their businesses down because of medical bills,” he said.

Clyburn said the House reform bill will define small businesses as those with fewer than 10 employees, though that cap would grow eventually to 15 and 25 employees.

He said some have wanted to define small businesses based on income, “but I’ve always maintained that a small business should be determined by the number of employees.”

Clyburn said he was surprised by how popular the single-payer idea was among the Charleston crowd, but as House majority whip, he said he knows there simply weren’t enough votes to pass it.

“You want me to be honest with you. I think I’m duty bound to be honest,” he said, adding that it’s better to pass some health care reform that will be good instead of pushing for a perfect plan that can’t pass.

Clyburn said it’s important for people to understand that if they like their current health care plan, they can keep it. And there’s still a lot of debate left, particularly on whether there should be a “public option,” a federally run health insurance plan that would compete with private plans.

“Everybody says they believe there ought to be a public option, but in the next breath they say it all depends on what it is and how you implement it,” he said. “There’s a saying around Washington that the devil is in the details, and that’s true.”

Clyburn said a reform bill could begin getting drafted this week and that a vote could come before the House breaks on Aug. 1.

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