Health care, business at odds about overhaul

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The Colorado Trust issued a brief last month that claims President Obama’s health care overhaul measures will dramatically cut employee insurance costs for Colorado businesses and individuals.

But many experts and business owners aren’t buying it.

The biggest factor in the issue is whether the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will be implemented, changed or overturned completely.

The Colorado Trust, a nonpartisan foundation that seeks to improve health care access, claims that once the Obama administration’s measures are fully implemented, it will cut employer-based annual premiums by nearly $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for families. Currently, rates are increasing between 10 and 25 percent a year in Colorado. That rate of premium cost growth will be 5.5 to 17 percent lower under the Affordable Care Act, according to the Colorado Trust.

That assessment is based on the fact that about 500,000 people in the state will be added to insurance rolls, reducing the cost-shift for the fully insured.

In all, the organization calculates the health care overhaul will save more than $1.8 billion in uncompensated care costs by 2019 and create 19,000 new jobs in Colorado.

That’s assuming a little too much for some.

“If health care reform is fully implemented, as it is written now, that’s a possibility,” said Steve Berkshire, health care administration professor at Central Michigan University. “But it isn’t likely. It just isn’t.”

Berkshire said too much remains uncertain about the future of health care to issue any kind of exact figures, and he noted that right now costs are going up, not down.

“Insurance companies have already started increasing their premiums between 10 and 20 percent to cover the things in reform that are already in place — things like covering dependents up to the age of 26,” he said. “Costs are rising. They aren’t likely to go down in the short term.”

Randee Van Ess, owner of Wellness Restoration Center in Colorado Springs, agrees with Berkshire’s assessment. She said her research shows Obama’s initiatives would mean higher costs.

“It’s why I’m not hiring right now,” Van Ess said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty with the law, and I’m still trying to figure out what plan I need, if it fits the government requirement and what will happen if I don’t provide a plan.”

Dr. Ned Calonge, executive director of The Colorado Trust, said the uncertainty is unwarranted.

“Right now, it’s the law,” he said, “even if at the state level some judges have said it’s unconstitutional. Until the Supreme Court hears the case, it’s the law, and states and businesses must move forward with implementing it.”

The National Federation of Independent Business opposes the health care mandates and is trying to make sure they don’t remain the law for long. The NFIB is the only business group to join the 26-state group suing the federal government to have the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act overturned.

Tony Gagliardi, NFIB Colorado executive director, is working to create health care exchanges, part of the health care act that would allow workers not insured by employers to shop for coverage at competitive rates.

He said those working to create exchanges don’t even have figures about what the changes will cost, so he’s skeptical about those the Colorado Trust is presenting.

“I question where they get those numbers,” Gagliardi said. “We’re working on implementing the exchanges here, and we don’t even know how many people will leave employer-based insurance for the exchanges, how many people are exempt, how many businesses will have their plans grandfathered in.”

Calonge said it should be easy to determine the origin of savings.

“Accountable care organizations will provide a medical home for people, with doctors and specialists all working together,” he said. “Bundled payments have already proven to save money. It isn’t uncertain at all. Grouped diagnostic codes in hospitals save money.”

Still, groups arguing on either side of the issue know the last word on health care has not been issued. Congress is currently tinkering with the law, and President Obama has signaled his willingness to compromise.

“I think we’re going to see some changes, so it’s impossible to say what will happen, Berkshire said. “If they keep in the requirements to cover everyone regardless of illness but do away with the mandate, insurance costs are going to skyrocket.”

One thing opponents and backers of the health care measures can agree on is that the current system is unsustainable.

“We know we can’t keep things the way they are,” Calonge said. “The costs are going to go up and up. We’ve seen that happen over the past decade. Wages are not keeping up with premium costs. So we have to do something, and this is the law right now.”