News Column

Health Law Extension Welcomed in N.M.

July 5, 2013

New Mexico business leaders on Tuesday welcomed an Obama administration decision giving them an extra year to deal with what they say is a confusing federal requirement that they offer all employees health insurance or risk facing financial penalties.

At the same time, insurance experts say individuals without health insurance, most employees and many businesses won't notice much difference now that the administration has delayed until 2015 a requirement of the Affordable Care Act that medium and large companies provide coverage for their workers or face fines if even one employee gets federal financial help to buy coverage.

Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett cast the decision as part of an effort to simplify data reporting requirements.

She said that since enforcing the coverage mandate is dependent on businesses reporting about their workers' access to insurance, the administration decided to postpone the reporting requirement, and with it, the mandate to provide coverage.

"This is great news for the business community," said Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce President Terri Cole. "There is a considerable amount of confusion around the implementation of the ACA."

"A lot of our clients are pretty stressed out over having to figure out if they have to comply with it, then figuring out how they're going to comply with it and afford it," said Stephen R. Byrd, president of The Manuel Lujan Agencies employee benefits division. "It's a slight relief in that respect."

Minda McGonagle, New Mexico director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the NFIB "had concerns from the start. We're not saying we're being vindicated. We're saying the devil is in the details."

The administration has promised better guidance over how to comply with the requirement.

"Until we see what the guidance is, how do we really know what is and isn't going to be happening?" McGonagle said.

State Insurance Superintendent John Franchini said most consumers won't see much difference, and the new health insurance exchange, designed to help individuals and small businesses buy affordablecoverage, will not be affected by the delay.

Franchini said 96 percent of New Mexico employers of 50 or more people, which are the businesses facing the mandate, already offer health insurance and are expected to continue to do so. Employers of fewer than 50 people don't face fines if they don't offer coverage.

The exchange, scheduled to begin selling insurance Oct. 1, will sell to individuals and businesses employing fewer than 50 people, so its implementation is not affected.

"I don't think this will hurt the exchange or hurt universal coverage for people," he said.

Association of Commerce and Industry President Beverlee McClure agreed. "A delay in the employer mandate does not mean necessarily a delay in coverage" for New Mexico's uninsured population, she said.

"The government itself wasn't ready to begin implementation," McClure said. The delay "is a win for my members and employers, and it's a win for the government."

"There are a number of legitimate hardships facing large businesses," said Martin Hickey, CEO of New Mexico Health Connections, a cooperative that will sell insurance to small businesses and individuals on the exchange.

"There are some companies in New Mexico that have low-wage employees," he said. "The companies would be required to buy insurance, but because of their very low revenue and so forth, they could not stay in business. Taking the time to more deliberately think through how to handle situations like that is appropriate."

The employer mandate was to take effect Jan. 1, but business groups nationally raised a number of concerns. For instance, the law created a new definition of full-time workers, those putting in 30 hours or more. But such complaints until now seemed to be going unheeded.

Individual mandates not affected

The delay in the employer requirement does not affect the law's requirement that individuals carry health insurance starting next year or face fines.

Tuesday's action is sure to anger liberals and labor groups, but it could provide cover for Democratic candidates in next year's congressional elections.

The move undercuts Republican efforts to make the overhaul and the costs associated with new requirements a major issue in congressional races.

Democrats are defending 21 Senate seats to the Republicans' 14, and the GOP had already started to excoriate Senate Democrats who had voted for the health law in 2009.

Republicans called it a validation of their belief that the law is unworkable and should be repealed.

"Obamacare costs too much, and it isn't working the way the administration promised," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "The White House seems to slowly be admitting what Americans already know ... that Obamacare needs to be repealed and replaced with common-sense reforms that actually lower costs for Americans."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Source: (c)2013 Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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