Friday, January 16, 2009

Small firms seek health care fix

Pam Knuth has worked at Kennewick's The Purple Parasol for nine years, but does not have employer-provided health coverage to show for her years of work at the bridal and special occasion store. "If you don't work for a big company you can't get medical insurance, and you can't afford to get your own," said the 45-year-old Kennewick woman. Knuth is covered by her husband's plan, but some of her co-workers haven't been so lucky. Shirley Giarde, co-owner of The Purple Parasol, which also has a Walla Walla location, said several employees have left because she hasn't been able to offer health insurance as a small-business owner.

"That's why we lose some of our really good employees. They need insurance," Giarde said. "I totally understand, but there's no insurance out there I can buy." And even Giarde pays more than $700 monthly for her and her husband's health insurance, yet still was more than $100,000 in medical debt after her husband was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy in 2007. Some small-business owners across Washington and the country echo Giarde's plea for government playing a stronger role in guaranteeing access to quality, affordable health coverage in a report released Thursday by the Washington Small Business for Secure Health Care Coalition, a group of more than 1,000 small-business owners and self-employed people who advocate for affordable, quality health care.

Taking the Pulse of Main Street: Small Businesses, Health Insurance and Priorities for Reform is based on a survey of 1,200 small businesses in 12 states -- with nearly 200 respondents from Washington and more than half of those from Eastern Washington. In Washington, 94 percent of small-business owners surveyed considered the affordability of premiums, co-pays and deductibles "very important," while 82 percent said the same about coverage for all necessary medical services, according to the report. Ana Ochoa, who owns La Estrellita, a Pasco children's clothing store, said her husband had to get a second job that provided health coverage for their family, which includes six children. But the coverage still doesn't cover many medical costs for her 5-year-old son who suffers from a disorder that causes medical problems like seizures. The family pays more than $7,000 yearly on his medical costs, Ochoa estimated

"And that's just one of my kids," Ochoa said. "If they do put (health insurance) out there, make sure it's worth it and it's affordable. You want it within reach." One-third of survey respondents said they offered health coverage to employees, and 81 percent of small employers with coverage estimated they pay 5 percent to 10 percent or more of payroll for health insurance, the report said. "We as small-business owners, we're the engines that drive this economy. But the health care crisis is driving us into the ground," Giarde said. "The country is looking to small businesses to create jobs and help revitalize our economy. We need a real health care fix to fulfill that promise."

Twenty-six percent of Washington survey respondents said they'd be willing to contribute 4 percent to 7 percent of payroll to quality health coverage, while 29 percent said they'd contribute 1 percent to 3 percent of payroll. Twenty percent said they wouldn't contribute, according to the report. "We are willing to contribute to health care, but we can't go it alone," Giarde said. In Washington, 54 percent of small-business owners surveyed said they supported a public alternative to private coverage, while 30 percent wanted the creation of more private plans.

A majority of state respondents also supported more public oversight of private insurers and believed government should play a strong role in health care, the report said. "For all that we've done in this country," Knuth said, "we can go to the moon but we can't figure out how to make health care work."

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