THERMOPOLIS, Wyo. — A group of about 20 business owners sat inside a deserted cafeteria at Hot Springs County Memorial Hospital, quietly listening to a presentation about the Affordable Care Act.
Several people took notes as Anne Ladd, chief executive at the Wyoming Business Coalition on Health, discussed how the federal health law might affect companies. She began with a short quiz.
Most in the room knew Americans will soon face penalties for lacking insurance. But their answers grew more tentative when Ladd asked about other topics, like a provision that bars companies from denying coverage based on a pre-existing condition.
After three years, major pieces of the law will soon take effect. On Tuesday, a federal insurance marketplace will begin enrolling Wyoming residents. New regulations will follow in January.
The Affordable Care Act remains unpopular in Wyoming. But instead of discussing how to fight the law, the business owners were considering how best to live with it.
“It’s something I guess we all have to do,” said Debra Tudor, owner of a small restaurant called the Black Bear Cafe. “We’ve all fought it way too long.”
The law won’t affect all businesses the same. Larger firms, with 50 or more employees, must provide insurance to employees beginning in 2015 or pay a penalty. Small businesses, which account for most of the companies in Wyoming, won’t be subject to the new rule.
Early in her talk, Ladd asked for a show of hands. How many people owned businesses with the equivalent of 50 full-time employees?
No hands went up.
She turned to other parts of the law often called Obamacare. Businesses must notify their workers about the new health insurance exchange — a sort of virtual marketplace — that will allow them to shop for coverage. But there is no penalty for those who fail to do so.
The law also requires that new health plans for small businesses provide certain essential benefits, like emergency services and maternity care.
While small companies won’t be required to provide insurance, the law includes tax credits to entice them to do so. More than 10,500 Wyoming business, representing 72 percent of the state’s small firms, will be eligible, according to the Small Business Majority.
Tudor’s restaurant might be one. She employs 10 people, but can’t afford to offer them health benefits. She plans to look into buying insurance through the exchange, but she suspects the tax credits ultimately won’t make a difference.
“I don’t think it’s going to be affordable, to pay half of their insurance and still pay their wages,” she said.
Shurie Scheel and her husband own a propane company that already offers insurance to employees. She doesn’t expect the law will have a major effect on their business. Their plan already complies with the new market regulations.
Other owners are more concerned, she said.
“They think crazy things, like it’s going to be a 25 percent fine if they don’t comply, or it’s going to be an outrageous amount of money, or they think they have to comply, when really they don’t have to,” she said. “They think it is a way bigger deal than it is.”