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Small businesses remain in limbo over health care

By Glenn Burkins
Special to The Observer
Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, an online news site targeting CharlotteĀ’s African American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Charlotte Observer business editor.

Now that a key provision of the Affordable Care Act has been delayed for one year, it goes without saying that the political blame game has shifted into full tilt.

Those who despise the law – and their numbers are significant – view the delay as concrete proof that President Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation was misguided from day one. Those who favor the law made haste to defend it, some even blaming the delay on GOP obstructionism.

And therein lies the problem.

Never in modern U.S. history has the nation tried to enact such an important and sweeping piece of legislation with voters and politicians so diametrically polarized. And now the first to be whipsawed that divide may be small and mid-size business owners – those with 50 or more full-time employees – who are required under the law to provide health insurance for their workers.

Last week, the Obama administration delayed the start of that provision until 2015 so that business owners would have more time to comply with federal reporting requirements. Some had complained loudly and publicly that the law was simply too complex to enact by 2014.

But it wasn’t just the law’s complexity that threatened to hurt employers.

It had become clear in recent months that the array of options (and ultimately long-term cost savings) that employers had been promised in selecting health insurance plans for their workers weren’t going to materialize, at least not in the short run.

In North Carolina and other states, some of the nation’s biggest insurance companies were showing little interest in joining the online markets, or exchanges, where small and mid-size business owners would go to shop for employee coverage. In North Carolina, in fact, only Blue Cross and Blue Shield had agreed to join the exchange for small businesses. Others were said to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

Which gets us back to divided government and polarized public opinion.

Only 17 governors agreed to establish the online markets in their states. The remaining 33, many of them Republicans, so adamantly opposed Obamacare that they turned down federal money and handed the job back to Washington.

The Government Accountability Office, in dual reports, recently warned that the federal and state governments were behind schedule in several key areas of implementing the small business exchanges. With so much at stake for small business owners, their employees and the economy as a whole, it’s disappointing that health care reform has been turned into a political football and not the national mission it should be.

Those most affected so far may be the tens of thousands of N.C. workers who won’t be offered an employee-sponsored insurance plan in 2014. (They can buy a subsidized policy on one of the exchanges for uninsured individuals, but they too have their problems.)

No sooner had the administration announced the delay in implementing the employer mandate than some congressional Republican began calling for investigations, suggesting that the move was politically motivated. Others wondered what other problems might be lurking in the implementation of Obamacare.

It’s time to stop the political brinksmanship.

Business leaders reacted with relief last week as news of the delay spread out from Washington. Some expressed hope that the administration could use the next 12 months to draft regulations that are more manageable for businesses to implement. That task would be considerably easer if opponents, after three years of waging war to kill Obamacare, would come to the table with sensible steps to improve it.

Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, a news site for Charlotte’s African-American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Observer business editor.
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