Health Care Law Brings Questions and Concerns

8/31/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

HUDSON FALLS, N.Y. — John Otrembiak already has health insurance through a previous employer.

As a small produce farmer, his main concern with the Affordable Care Act — so-called “Obamacare” — is helping a full-time employee pay for such coverage.

As of Jan. 1, 2014, every American must have health insurance by law or face penalties beginning with their 2014 federal income taxes. For those currently without insurance, an open enrollment period begins Oct. 1, when they can choose one of the 17 available providers in New York state.

“I’d like to hire someone full time next spring,” said Otrembiak, of Saratoga Springs. “Right now, I mostly use high school and Skidmore College students.”

As a small employer with fewer than 50 workers, Otrembiak, like many farmers, does not have to provide health insurance for his employees.

Even for large employers, that mandate has been delayed a year until Jan. 1, 2015. By then, firms with more than 50 people must offer coverage. Companies with more than 200 employees must automatically enroll workers in a plan, which they can choose to opt out of.

In the interim, from Jan. 1, 2014, to Jan. 1, 2015, millions of Americans will have to find some other type of coverage.

As a business owner who wants to find and keep good workers, it’s in Otrembiak’s best interest to lend whatever assistance he can.

“Employees are still going to be mandated, so I’m going to try to help them out,” he said. “A farm worker makes fairly low pay, $12 to $15. They aren’t making enough to pay for insurance themselves. I’ll probably pay part of it and get a tax credit.”

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Washington County recently hosted a presentation about the new federal law to help area residents gain a basic understanding about its many complexities.

“It’s a moving target,” Extension agent Sandy Buxton said. “You have to do a lot of looking and shopping. It is going to be overwhelming.”

California, Maryland and Massachusetts have already adopted state-mandated health insurance programs and premiums in those states have gone down 30 to 40 percent, making healthcare more affordable to a larger number of people, Buxton said.

That’s what the Affordable Care Act is supposed to accomplish for all U.S. citizens.

At present, 2.8 million (15 percent) of all New York residents and 50 million Americans have no health insurance. Many young, healthy people feel they don’t need it and would rather save their money or spend it elsewhere.

In theory, if all those people had insurance, the pool of people paying for coverage would be much larger, bringing rates down for everyone.

However, most plans, even for individuals, cost at least a few thousand dollars. The penalty for not having insurance will be $95 in 2014, $675 in 2015 and 1 percent of a person’s wages thereafter, Buxton said.

Some people will likely pay the penalty instead of spending thousands of dollars for something they might not ever need. So rates might not come down as quickly as the new law’s supporters hoped for.

“It’ll be a struggle for the next two years,” Otrembiak said. “If it works as planned, it’ll be pretty nice.”

Sally Raino, her husband and son own a small computer software business in Whitehall. At present, all three are uninsured.

Raino said the least expensive plan would cost at least $18,000, which they simply can’t afford. Instead, they each get regular medical checkups and take the risk that they won’t suffer any serious illnesses or injuries.

She’s hopeful that costs will come down enough under the Affordable Care Act so they get the coverage they need.

“I would be thrilled to see a premium of $600 per month for my family,” Raino said. “It’s that peace of mind knowing that if you get sick it would not sink your family. I’m looking forward to it.”

Of course, the new program also has many opponents. Regardless, barring sudden change, it’s something that millions of businesses and individuals will soon have to deal with.

“It really doesn’t matter what you call it,” Buxton said. “This is the law and it’s moving forward.”

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