Despite Scott opposition, fed official touts health care reform in Tampa
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03/24/11 Kate Bradshaw
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US Health and Human Services regional director Anton Gunn.


photo by Kate Bradshaw, WMNF

One year and one day have passed since President Obama signed into law the Affordable Care Act, a measure critics refer to as Obamacare. A federal official touted the benefits of the law to a handful of small business owners in Tampa today, even though Florida has turned down a few of the act’s key provisions.

The women’s small business roundtable took place in the very room where, in 2009, a town hall on health care reform nearly turned into a riot. Most in attendance wanted to know how the Affordable Care Act, which will soon require everyone to have health insurance, will benefit them. One of these was staffing firm executive Marci Wilhem. She said she’s concerned that health insurance premiums, which can increase by up to 20 percent in a year, will make it impossible to operate at a profit.

"It's the biggest check we write every year. It's starting to really concern me because I feel like it's not going to be sustainable. There's no way we're going to be able to sustain it. We're either going to have to provide much less quality benefits or increase our prices to the point where we won't be competitive in the marketplace."

The event took place at the Children’s Board building in Tampa’s Ybor City. Since the Affordable Care act passed a year ago, some its provisions have already rolled out, including a tax credit of up to 35 percent for small businesses that already provide insurance for employees. This is what piqued the interest of Lo Berry, who is CEO of Reachup Incorporated, which works for racial equality in medical care. She said the nonprofit needs all the help it can get in providing employees with decent benefits.

"Many of my employees, in fact, over half are what you call indigenous workers. They are women who were either recipients of services or come from the population that we serve. And so they've come from a working poor socio-economic status."

US Department of Health and Human Services Anton Gunn fielded questions from attendees. He said the tax credit applies to companies with the equivalent of 25 full-time employees that already provide health care coverage for their employees. He said a restaurant owner with 40 part-time employees that are the equivalent of 25 full-timers, for example, would get a $28,000 tax credit. He said that would go up to $40,000 in 2014, when supporters hope the bill will be in full effect.

"It helps with costs. Again, it doesn't cover the whole thing but by the time you get to 2014 the market place opens up, people can shop for more affordable plans that meets their needs at an affordable cost."

Gunn said many small businesses pay 18-20 percent more for health insurance than large businesses, and that insurers can often raise their rates all they want. This was a big concern for Nancy Faller-Brown, who runs a small engineering firm in Tampa. She said her insurer raised its rates by 20 percent one year, which led to skimpier coverage for her employees.

"We're going like, 'why in the world would you raise it that much?' They said, 'well that's our most expensive policy, it's the nicest one we have.' I guess the benefits were too good. Anyways, so they switched us to another policy that was about the same price that we had been paying. The benefits weren't as good, but they were still good. So we went with it and the next year they raised that 10 percent. I guess we feel like we're being held hostage."

Gunn said the Affordable Care Act is awarding states a million dollars apiece to scrutinize insurance companies’ attempts to hike their premium rates.

"If the insurance company makes a decision to raise the premium 20 percent, 30 percent, years ago there was nobody really looking over their shoulder to say 'why is this premium being raised?' Nobody really asked the question. But the Affordable Care Act grants states the opportunity to have a grant to review premium increases. A million dollars for premium increases."

The key word here is opportunity. Last month Florida Governor Rick Scott rejected that money, which leaves no regulation over what health insurance providers can charge for coverage.

"Unfortunately, if the state makes a decision to not look at why insurance companies are raising rates, the federal government won't make them do it."

Scott has said the passage of the Affordable Care Act is what compelled him to run for governor, and he has vowed to fight it tooth and nail. He again criticized the policy yesterday during his visit to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration.

"It's not going to fix the problem. Our problem with health care in this country is the cost of health care is too expensive. The provider cost of health care is too expensive. The delivery system is not set up the right way."

Last year, then-Attorney General Bill McCollum filed suit against the federal government over the Affordable Care Act. Current Attorney General Pam Bondi continued that suit, and a federal judge in Pensacola said the law was unconstitutional. The Obama Administration has appealed. At issue is the requirement that everyone buy insurance, though the complaints of Scott and the law’s other critics on the right don’t stop there.

"I think it's three things. It's going to be the biggest, it's going to cause more ration of care than anything that has ever happened in this country, it's going to kill more jobs than anything that's ever happened in this country, and it is going to be the biggest tax increase ever in the history of this country."

Research organizations like factcheck.org have debunked the claim that the Affordable Care Act will cause the largest tax hike in recent memory. Gunn also said the mandate for small businesses is often misrepresented.

"It only really applies to about 200,000 of the 4,000,000 small businesses that exist in America in terms of the mandate to provide coverage and many of those businesses already provide coverage for their employees."

The law requires businesses with 50 or more employees to provide insurance for their employees, but Gunn said there are ways to get around the requirement.

While many Florida lawmakers are fighting the Affordable Care Act, Gunn said around $110 million has come to Florida as a result of the measure by way of things like grants to community clinics. He said the administration is confident the law will survive the tough political climate in faces in years leading up to 2014.

Previous WMNF news coverage of the Affordable Health Care Act

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