Employers urged to stay the course on health care reform -- for now

NORTH BAY -- With the federal health overhaul hanging in the balance of what will most certainly be a politically charged U.S. Supreme Court decision, insurance brokers in the North Bay offered a familiar refrain to employers on what changes, if any, they should make to their health plans: wait and see and stay the course.

Few can confidently predict the outcome of the court's hearings held two weeks ago on whether the Affordable Care Act, and its individual mandate, is constitutional. The court will decide if the mandate -- which insurers say is necessary to spread the risk of millions of new entrants to the health care system -- does or does not violate the U.S. Commerce Clause. A decision is expected sometime in June.

"As an employer I would probably wait and see. I would just keep going as I was going," said Bud Martin, senior vice president of employee benefits for Wells Fargo Insurance Services in the North Bay. "We're only talking three months here, and whether any part will be thrown out is kind of up in the air."

Victor McKnight, a principal and broker with Edgewood Partners Insurance Center, or EPIC, in Petaluma, offered a similar prognosis.

"Clients are really holding tight with any changes," he said.  "June will be here before you know it.  Really, most employers were waiting on any major changes this year and were waiting for guidance from the Administration."

Without the mandate, which would require individuals to purchase health insurance or pay a fine, the insurance industry has largely said that treating some 32 million new patients and eliminating "preexisting condition"  practices would drive up rates, since the pool of patients would be less healthy, and thus more expensive to treat. But one key question is whether or not the mandate can be scrapped while the rest of the law is upheld or if the entire law is struck down.

Key to the individual mandate is whether or not it adequately defines "essential health benefits," said Jordan Shields, a broker and head of Jordan Shields Insurance office in Novato. Mr. Shields also said he was advising clients to stay the course, until there is more clarity on the law.

"What we've been telling clients is the same thing we were telling them a year ago -- we'll see," Mr. Shields said. Regarding the mandate, he added: "Even if they have a mandate, it has to be comprised of essential health benefits."

So what does all this mean for employers?

"Continued uncertainty until we hear from the Supreme Court or the states," said Mr. Martin of Wells Fargo, who added yet another familiar refrain for employers: "Wait and see, prices will increase and many of the uninsured will drive up costs."

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