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Uncertainty regarding health care law lingers for W.Va. businesses

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - With nearly seven months to go before major provisions of the Affordable Care Act go into effect, West Virginia employers remain unsure about how they will deal with the changes, the head of the state Chamber of Commerce said.

Two years after President Barack Obama signed his landmark health care proposal into law, and nearly one year after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld most of its provisions, business leaders are still trying to plan for how they will implement the changes.

West Virginia Chamber President Steve Roberts said most of his organization's 800 member businesses have lingering uncertainty.

"There continue to be major questions and concerns within the employer community about how the Affordable Care Act will work, what its costs will be, and who is and isn't covered," Roberts said.

Beginning Jan. 1, all businesses with more than 50 full-time employees will be required to provide health insurance or face a fine. This is also the date when insurers will no longer be able to deny coverage or charge higher rates for individuals with pre-existing conditions.

Business groups, including the Chamber, have been critical of the law, saying it will increase employer costs and lead to higher unemployment. Supporters say the expanded coverage will reduce health care costs by expanding insurance risk pools and ensuring people have access to preventative care.

Two years after its passage, most business owners doubt the purported benefits.  

In an April survey by Gallup, only 9 percent of small business owners said they thought the law would be good for business. Forty-eight percent said it would be bad for business, while 39 percent said there would be no impact.

When asked if they believed it would lower or increase their company's health care costs, only 5 percent said it would lower costs, while 55 percent believed it would raise them.

Owners also said they have adjusted business plans in response to the law, with 41 percent saying they have held off hiring new employees and

38 percent saying they have pulled back on plans to expand.

Nineteen percent said they have reduced the number of employees, and another 19 percent said they have cut employee hours in response to the law.

Roberts said many state employers already have seen increases in insurance premiums in the last year and they are worried about how premiums will change next year.

"Employers are working at this from the standpoint of how much this is going to cost," he said. "The ACA regrettably has created an environment of unpredictability that has employers frightened about what might be next."

The uncertainty is greatest for employers who fall close to the 50 full-time employee threshold.

In a recent floor speech advocating for a repeal of the law, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., read an email from a West Virginia daycare owner with 73 employees who could not afford the costs of health insurance.

She said if she didn't offer it and kept her current staff, she was going to have to pay $83,000 in penalties. Her other alternatives were to lay off 24 employees or close.

"I tried to help with this business owner to try to help her find solutions," Capito said. "I couldn't come up with one, because this is getting rammed down her throat no matter what."

According to the federal definition, a full-time employee is one who works 120 hours or more per month, or about 30 hours a week. That could put what some employers consider part-time workers into the full-time category.

"Most people would say that's not full time," Roberts said.

He said this definition could produce the unintended consequence of employers cutting back hours for their part-time employees to avoid being forced to offer health insurance.

West Virginia is partnering with the federal government to set up a state health insurance exchange to allow individuals and businesses with fewer than 100 employees to purchase health plans on the open market.

The marketplace concept is designed to deliver higher-benefit, lower-cost options to participants.

While the exchange could be beneficial, Roberts said open enrollment doesn't begin until Oct. 1.

But Roberts said since the exchange is not online yet, businesses are still uncertain about what kind of benefits they can get from it.

"We don't have an exchange yet, which means as employers we do not have the ability to go in yet and look at what is supposed to be a bigger marketplace," he said.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at or 304-348-4836.

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