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North Bay Business Journal

Wednesday, July 3, 2013, 7:00 am

Brokers: Sigh of relief with delay of employer health care mandate

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    The announcement that the Obama Administration will delay the mandate requiring employers with 50 or more workers to provide health insurance or pay a fine was greeted with a sense of relief and appreciation, allowing businesses to better plan for full implementation of the Affordable Care Act, according to brokers.

    On Tuesday, the Treasury Department unexpectedly announced that the deadline for what is commonly called “pay or play” will be Jan. 1, 2015, rather than the beginning of next year. The department acknowledged that employers were faced with a fast-approaching web of complexities related to the mandate.

    Employers with at least 50 workers will eventually have to pay a $2,000 penalty per employee if they do not provide coverage, although employers will not have to include the first 30 employees in the penalty calculation.

    “It sounds like the administration has admitted this part is very difficult and needed to make it easier for employers to comply,” said Victor McKnight, a principal at EPIC Insurance Brokers in Petaluma.

    The decision will benefit a number of businesses, but especially industries that rely heavily on part-time workers — such as retail, hospitality and agricultural businesses — because of formulas needed to track how many hours were being worked by certain employees, which in turn would determine who’s required to have employer-sponsored health plans.

    “The little bit I’ve gotten from employers is they are pretty happy,” said Keith McNeil, a broker with the SSM Group in Novato. “There’s a lot of reporting that comes with pay or play. Whether or not it’s the employer that doesn’t want to cover more people or if it’s because of the reporting– I think they’re all pretty happy with it.”

    The Treasury delayed implementation in response to concerns about the complexity of the requirements and a goal of implementing them “effectively,” according to Mark Mazur, assistant secretary for tax policy.

    “We recognize that the vast majority of businesses that will need to do this reporting already provide health insurance to their workers, and we want to make sure it is easy for others to do so,” he said.

    While the employer mandate is a key piece of the Affordable Care Act, it is not the lynchpin that is the individual mandate, according to Mr. McKnight. Pay or play is perhaps the third-most-important part of the bill, after the individual mandate and guarantee issue, or the elimination of pre-existing conditions in determining coverage, he said.

    Delayed implementation means a number of employers will have the luxury of better planning, in theory.

    “It was very cumbersome because they were going to have to track hours, so those companies have a big relief,” Mr. McKnight said.

    The delay will not impact California’s state-run health exchanges established under the health bill. The exchange, also known as Covered California, recently revealed tentative rates and carriers on the individual market and is in the process of doing the same for an exchange for employers with 50 or fewer workers, better known as the Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP.

    The announcement “has no impact on the state exchange’s launch of SHOP,” Anne Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Covered California, told the Business Journal. Ms. Gonzalez said the exchange plans to release rates and carriers by August.

    California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones released a statement that said the decision will not impact the roll out of health care reform in California.

    “The requirement that large employers provide health insurance to their employees is an important component of ObamaCare and the administration should make sure that this provision can be implemented in 2015,” he said.

    Ninety-two percent of employers with more than 50 employees already offer health plans, he noted in the statement.

    “We anticipate that they will continue to do so as they have done so historically even without the existence of a penalty,” Mr. Jones said.

    Mr. McKnight, of EPIC, said the delay will have a short-term positive impact.

    “Overall it’s probably a good thing for employers and a good thing for the economy,” he said.

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