HELENA — The full launch of “Obamacare” this fall could lead to changes for some businesses’ employee health coverage in Montana — and how businesses respond could affect the entire system.
For now, however, businesses and their advocates are just trying to learn their options and how the federal law might affect their bottom line and their employees’ well-being.
“People know it’s coming, but they still don’t know what the heck it means for their business,” says Webb Brown, president of the state Chamber of Commerce. “There is still a lot of confusion.”
The Affordable Care Act has multiple regulations for employee health coverage, but they break down along two lines: For businesses with 50 or more employees, and those with less.
Effective January 2014, larger businesses are required to offer health coverage to workers or pay a penalty. Those with fewer than 50 employees do not have to offer coverage.
In Montana, about 97 percent of all private-sector companies have fewer than 50 workers, and about two-thirds of Montana’s private-sector workforce is at these smaller firms.
The federal government will be launching a health insurance marketplace, where small companies can shop on the Internet for health coverage for their employees. It’s supposed to begin Oct. 1. Three insurers are expected to offer policies.
But a key question, business advisers and others say, is whether businesses, large or small, might drop what employee coverage they have and tell employees to buy their own policy on the individual Internet marketplace.
“The biggest unknown, I think, is the employer response,” says Gregg Davis, director of health care industry research for the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
Richard Miltenberger, a partner in Mountain West Benefits, a Helena firm that advises businesses on health coverage, says he expects most larger businesses will stick with the employee health coverage they offer now.
However, for businesses with lower-wage workers, having them buy their own policy might actually save the company and the workers money, because lower-wage workers can get substantial federal subsidies to help them pay for their insurance, he says.
Brown says businesses are discovering that their decision involves many factors, and isn’t something they can rush into.
“It’s not going to be just a 10-minute exercise to decide which way you should go,” he says.