By David Levinsky
State and county business leaders applauded President Barack Obama's move to delay penalties for companies that don't provide health insurance, but cautioned that the extra time won't necessarily ease concerns about the president's signature reform law.
The Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare, requires businesses with more than 50 full-time workers to offer suitable health care coverage or face escalating tax penalties. The business mandate was expected to go into effect this January, but in a surprise move Tuesday, the White House announced it was delaying the start of the requirement for a year until January 2015.
Kristi Howell-Ikeda, president of the Burlington County Chamber of Commerce, said the delay was a welcome development for many county businesses that she said have complained about the mandate's complicated requirements and expense.
"Anything to give local businesses time to plan and implement is a good thing," Howell-Ikeda said Friday, noting that businesses are still wary of the overhaul law.
"We feel the provisions aren't well-defined, and there's still a great unknown about the impact the law will have on businesses, particularly with hiring," she said. "Any time you have a dramatic change, it creates an impact on both consumers and employers."
She said the delay in fines could give the administration or Congress more time to revise the law to make it easier on businesses.
Christine Stearns, vice president for health affairs for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, agreed that the additional time might help some businesses, but said there were still plenty of unknowns about the law's implementation and the administration's requirements.
"For many companies, finding out there's additional time was welcome news, but questions remain about what this really means. We still don't know," Stearns said.
Congressman Rob Andrews, who helped write the final health care reform law, said he was OK with the delay, but noted that the mandate actually impacts only a small percentage of companies. He said most are either small enough to be exempt from the insurance requirement or larger businesses that already provide their workers with suitable insurance plans.
"This doesn't affect Lockheed Martin or other big employers, and it doesn't impact most stores along Main Street in Marlton because they're smaller than 50 employees," Andrews, D-1st of Haddon Heights, said Wednesday. "It's a very small group that's affected, but it does make sense to give them another year to figure out how they're going to comply."
Congressman Jon Runyan, who has often cited the negative impact on businesses for his multiple votes to repeal the reform law, said he was still concerned with the uncertainty surrounding the law.
"Since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, small businesses have expressed strong concerns over the onerous requirements and tax increases in the law. They have consistently warned about the negative impact this law would have on their ability to do business, keep their current employees, and create jobs at the same time. So in this regard, I am pleased that the administration finally heard what job creators have been telling us for months," said Runyan, R-3rd of Mount Laurel, on Friday. "However, this is only a delay in the mandate and does nothing to alleviate the concerns of average New Jersey families who are still concerned about whether they can keep their current plans as promised, or those that fear their premiums will actually increase, and not decrease."
The one-year delay is only for businesses. The much-discussed individual mandate requiring most Americans to obtain health insurance or face fines is still scheduled to go into effect in January.
To help uninsured individuals and families obtain coverage, state and federal governments are creating online and telephone marketplaces, called health insurance exchanges, where they can shop for coverage, including some subsidized plans.
Enrollment through the exchanges is scheduled to begin Oct. 1.
In addition to the health insurance exchange, thousands more low-income adults are expected to qualify for the state-run Medicaid program, which will expand on Jan. 1.
Andrews said the start of the individual mandate and kickoff of enrollment through the exchanges won't likely be pushed back, although he acknowledged that there was "plenty of work that needs to be done" to prepare for both dates.
"It's going to take a major outreach effort," he said, adding that both public service advertising and partnerships with nonprofit groups would be important.
Andrews cited a family from his district that has incurred $30,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses over the years because it lacked insurance. Under the Affordable Care Act, Andrews said that family will qualify for coverage through Medicaid.
"This is a good thing for so many, but it's important that they know it's there," he said.
Ray Castro, senior policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective, said the delay in the business mandate will allow the Obama administration to concentrate on making sure the exchanges are functioning well.
Although the delay may prompt some businesses to hold off on providing coverage, Castro said their employees will still be able to obtain affordable coverage through the exchanges or Medicaid.
"I don't think a one-year delay is necessarily a bad thing," he said. "Employees will still have access to insurance, so on the balance, I think it was a reasonable choice."