Health Reform: Small Business Groups Lobby for More Relief With the deadline to comply with health-care reforms extended, some groups have more time to fight for changes.

By Arlene Weintraub

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When the White House announced on July 2 that companies would have an extra year to comply with the Affordable Care Act, lobbying groups representing small employers applauded. Several of those groups, including the National Restaurant Association, the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the Food Marketing Institute, had been fighting hard for what they referred to as "transition relief," extra time for companies that must provide health insurance to their workers under the new law to implement the changes without having to fear financial penalties for not doing so properly.

Despite that big win, groups representing small business owners aren't giving up their fight to change the law, which is often referred to as Obamacare. All companies with 50 or more full-time employees or full-time equivalents will still have to provide health insurance starting in 2015, and small business owners have plenty more bones to pick with how the regulations are being implemented.

Issue No. 1 is the very definition of a full-time employee. According to the law, any company with 50 or more full-time workers or full-time equivalents will have to provide health benefits or face fines of between $2,000 and $3,000 per employee for all but 30 of its full-timers. All employees who work 30 hours or more per week are counted toward the full-time total.

Several small-business groups, particularly those representing service-oriented industries, believe the 30-hour requirement unfairly punishes companies that rely on shift workers. "Restaurants have multiple shifts of folks who enjoy being able to work at night or weekends to supplement school or a second job," says Scott DeFife, executive vice president for policy and government affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association. "Restaurants have always considered part-time workers to be those working 32 hours a week or 34 hours. Capping that at 30 hours will cause them to lose the flexibility in the scheduling that's always been a benefit to their workers. "

Opponents of the 30-hour mandate are gaining some traction on Capitol Hill. On June 28, U.S. Rep. Todd Young of Indiana introduced a bill setting the definition of full-time at 40 hours.

Some groups would also like lawmakers to reconsider which companies should be considered large enough to have to comply with health reform. "Many smaller businesses might be on the cusp of being defined as a large employer—namely those having 50 full-time equivalents—and thus being under this law," says Christine Pollack, vice president of government affairs for the Retail Industry Leaders Association in Arlington, Va., and a spokesperson for an industry coalition called Employers for Flexibility in Health Care (E-FLEX), which was formed two years ago to fight for changes to the Affordable Care Act.

Pollack says E-FLEX would like to see the definition of a large company boosted from 50 full-timers to a larger number, which the coalition is still working to define. "That would go a long way to helping out smaller businesses," she says.

Groups like E-FLEX will likely face an uphill battle over the next year persuading lawmakers to boost that employee count beyond 50, but there are other changes may be easier. For example, the law includes a so-called auto-enrollment provision, which requires that any employee of a company with over 200 workers be enrolled in the plan unless they opt out of it. That concerns folks like Robert Rosado, director of government relations for the Food Marketing Institute in Arlington, Va., which represents grocers.

"Say somebody's a student, or they're on their spouse's coverage, and for whatever reason they see the [health coverage] forms and don't respond," Rosado says. "They're enrolled in the program, and then they look at their next pay stub and see a big chunk of money taken out for coverage they don't need. Who picks up that cost? How do you get them out of the coverage?"

U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina introduced a bill in March repealing the auto-enrollment requirement. The bill is stalled in committee. But supporters of this change and others they'd like legislators to make before health reform is fully implemented in 2015 are undeterred. "We're hitting the ground, educating members and staff," Pollock says. "This is just the beginning of a very long process."

Wavy Line

Arlene Weintraub has over fifteen years of experience writing about health care, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology and the author of a book on the anti-aging industry, Selling the Fountain of Youth (Basic Books, 2010).She has been published in USA Today, US News & World Report, Technology Review, and other media outlets. She was previously a senior health writer for BusinessWeek.

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