June 21, 2013

Firms have questions about health care law

Charles Oliver

— The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, sometimes called Obamacare, runs some 2,600 pages. But the regulations required to implement it dwarf that law.

“Some of the estimates I’ve heard is that it will require one million pages of regulations,” said Al Ertel, chief operating officer of Alliant Health Plans, a Dalton-based not-for-profit provider of health insurance.

Ertel conducted a workshop on the law on Thursday at the Dalton Golf & Country Club. The  Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce hosted the event.

Ertel noted that it took federal regulators almost 20 pages just to define a full-time employee for the purposes of the law. The law considers anyone working at least 30 hours a week as a full-time employee. But employers will also have to add up the total hours worked by part-time employees who work less than 30 hours each week and divide them by 30 and count that number as full-time employees under the law, he noted.

Most of the provisions of the new law go into effect on Jan. 1, 2014, and each day sees more rules and regulations coming out of Washington for insurance companies, doctors, hospitals, employers and others to analyze and try to comply with.

“It’s like trying to drink water from a fire hose,” Ertel said.

He said officials at Alliant have been spending one or two hours each day on the phone with bureaucrats in Washington trying to get those rules clarified.

“The frustrating thing is you get different answers depending on who is asking the question and who is providing the answer,” he said.

Ertel said the companies Alliant works with have plenty of questions as well but one question comes up much more frequently than any other.

“‘How much is this going to cost?’ That’s the most important question,” he said.

Unfortunately, he said, there’s no easy answer because it depends on so many variables, starting with the size and makeup of a company’s workforce, and each company is different.

The law requires companies with 50 or more employees to offer workers health insurance or pay a financial penalty. Firms with less than 50 employees won’t be required to offer insurance.

Ed Painter, owner of Fast Foto Services in Dalton, spent several months studying the law as part of a state commission that looked at whether Georgia should set up an exchange where those who don’t get insurance at work could purchase it (http://healthcarereform.georgia.gov/governors-exchange-advisory-committee).

Georgia officials ultimately decided not to set up an exchange, citing the potential long-term costs. Just 16 states and the District of Columbia agreed to set up an exchange. The federal government will run the exchanges in 27 of the remaining states, and in seven states the exchanges will be run by a partnership of the state and federal governments.

Painter said he has one piece of advice for any small business owner who currently offers health insurance.

“Talk to your insurance agent. They are studying it, and he’s going to have the best information,” Painter said.