WASHINGTON — Alea Kilgore can still see it in the faces of the Colorado small-business owners who attend the seminars her government agency sponsors about complying with the new federal healthcare law.
The manager of the Denver Metro Small Business Development Center, Kilgore has helped lead six classes in the last 12 months about the Affordable Care Act — known more commonly as Obamacare.
Kilgore’s agency won a national excellence-and-innovation award from the U.S. Small Business Administration last year, and spokeswoman Kate Horle said “we have worked really, really hard” to teach small businesses about the new law. Yet furrowed brows and pursed lips are the norm rather than the exception when she looks out at the 75 audience members who have attended one of the hour-and-a-half long Health Care Reform Preparedness series.
“Their faces still look puzzled,” Kilgore said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s very overwhelming, and the bottom line is we still don’t know (how the law will affect their decisions about hiring employees and purchasing health insurance).”
Kilgore’s conclusion is echoed in the findings of the informal survey her agency conducted last month. (The poll included responses from businesses of all size, not just small businesses). The results, made public for the first time, from 121 members in the state show widespread uncertainty about the effect of the law on their business:
- 52 percent said they were not aware of Colorado’s health exchanges.
- 47 percent said they were undecided about buying health insurance on the exchanges.
- 62 percent said they didn’t know how the law would affect their costs, while 39 percent didn’t know the impact of the law on their hiring decisions.
Obamacare creates different categories for businesses based on their number of employees, their employees’ salaries, the work status of the employees, and their employees’ coverage or lack thereof.
Employees and non-employees alike are required to purchase health insurance if they don’t have it already, but the federal government will provide subsidies to those who do not. For example, a small business with fewer than 25 equivalent full-time employees that pays an average wage of less than $50,000 a year, and pays at least half of their health-care premiums is eligible for a tax credit of 50 percent in 2014.
With many ins and outs, the law has confused and confounded from the start. It will affect small-business owners in particular, and some have complained to policymakers. At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Finance last month, Chairman Max Baucus (D-Montana) said “small businesses have no idea what to do … They just don’t know what the affordability rates are. They don’t know when penalties may apply.” Implementing the law would be a “huge train wreck,” he said.
Baucus qualified his remarks subsequently, but a few of his Democratic colleagues have acknowledged that small-business leaders are anxious and confused about the law’s impact. “There have been concerns raised; there’s no question about it,” Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland said in an interview Monday.
Sen. Mark Udall was unavailable for interviews at the Capitol Tuesday and a spokesman did not return an email message about the reaction from small businesses in the Centennial State.
The Colorado Democrat, who is up for re-election in 2014, received criticism from Colorado Republican Party chairman Ryan Call for staying mum about the law’s impact on businesses.
“Where is Senator Udall? Why is he silent while so many Coloradans are going to be hurt by Obamacare?,” Call said in the statement.
Udall voted for the law in 2009 and said he was a “vocal supporter” of the bill last December. He has held meetings with business leaders about the healthcare law, including a meeting in Durango in October.
The impact of the health-care law on Colorado businesses may depend on the next six and a half months in Washington. If few people enroll in state health exchanges, premiums will rise, suppressing demand.
The battle showed no signs abating Tuesday.
Republicans criticized Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius for soliciting money to educate the public about the law.
“Now the Secretary is raising money from private companies to help convince the public that Obamacare is good policy,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters Tuesday.
Many Democrats have responded in kind. Senate Majority Leader Richard Durbin of Illinois said the health-care law was mentioned at their weekly luncheon at the Capitol on Tuesday, but “only in the course of conversation that Republicans are making every effort possible to prevent (Americans from knowing about the law).”