Health care costs hard on businesses, worse for workers

 

Health-care insurance costs are the fastest growing expense for most businesses. And yet for many small-business owners, they are costs many feel they have little control over.

Because of the rising cost of health care in our country, many segments of the population who used to have health insurance no longer can afford it. These folks are the working poor, and many of them may be in your offices, shops and warehouses.

According to the Whatcom Alliance for Healthcare Access, from 2003 to 2004 the number of uninsured in our state grew by almost 20 percent. Most of that growth is among low-income workers, employees at small businesses and young workers. And the most startling statistic is that 75 percent of those who are uninsured are employed or living in a working household.

Despite these statistics, the number of employers offering health insurance continues to drop, and it’s no shock why. The cost to a small business to provide health insurance is simply unattainable for many that are struggling to keep afloat.

While the costs of insurance are often too high for businesses and workers, the cost of a medical bill after an emergency can often lead to bankruptcy. A Harvard study two years ago found that of 1,771 Americans in bankruptcy courts across the country, half said that illness or medical bills drove them to bankruptcy. That amounts to 2 million Americans each year. What surprised the researchers most about their findings was that three-quarters of the medically bankrupt had health insurance.

On top of these statistics is the simple fact that negotiating the waters of health-care insurance is far from simple. It can seem like one would need an advanced degree just to figure out the paperwork, and business owners and managers often just don’t have the time.

But there is hope to businesses that may throw up their hands in frustration.

At WAHA’s Community Healthcare Forum on June 11, speaker John Kitzhaber, former governor of Oregon and a medical doctor, spoke to several hundred people about his efforts in the state of Oregon to make changes on a federal level.

Although it may seem insurmountable to change a system that is complicated and national in scope, Kitzhaber encouraged local leaders to try.

Washington’s House Bill 2572, which establishes a small-employer health-insurance partnership program, passed last year and is a good start, but we need to keep working on it.

It’s our job to put pressure on our state leaders to do their jobs — make a stand and work to fix the health-care system. WAHA believes that the key to affordable health coverage for small employers is dependent on a partnership that joins employers, employees and the state. This is likely the only way this problem will be solved.

This is not about the poor or the homeless who don’t have insurance. This is about the small-business owners and workers in our own community who would be bankrupt if they ended up in the hospital. It’s about the health of our entire community.

For more information about the WAHA Community Healthcare Forum on June 11, see our story on page A17.

 

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