BANGOR, Maine — Access to diverse types of credit and rising health care costs were among the concerns raised by small-business owners on Thursday during a meeting with Sen. Olympia Snowe and an Obama administration official.
Thursday’s forum at Husson University was not part of the series of “town hall” meetings on health care reform being held by members of Congress this month.
But with the national debate over health care rising to a fever pitch, it was not surprising that health insurance costs would be on the minds of some of the small-business owners attending the forum. Snowe, R-Maine, is expected to play a critical role in Senate debate over health care reform as she and five other influential senators attempt to craft a bipartisan bill.
“We need more competition from health insurance providers,” said David Whitney, whose family runs Whitney Wreath, Whitney’s Blueberries and Whitney’s Toolshed in Washington County. “I will let everyone else debate the rest.”
At one point, Snowe was asked why there appears to be so much confusion and misinformation feeding the increasingly vitriolic debate over health care. Snowe said that one of the challenges is that there is no single proposal out there around which to frame the dialogue.
Her group of lawmakers from the Senate Finance Committee — dubbed the “Gang of 6” — is working on a plan that would give small-business owners access to larger pools to lower costs.
Snowe said she also wants to make sure that those who like their health insurance can keep their coverage but that those without can find affordable options. Snowe has said she would only favor a so-called “public plan” offered by the government in states where private insurers have failed to offer affordable plans.
“There is no simple solution,” Snowe said. “We have some huge problems.”
Much of the rest of the conversation during the forum focused on businesses’ access to credit and programs offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration,
Karen Mills, SBA administrator and a former entrepreneur and venture capitalist from Brunswick, said the federal agency has put more than $8 billion into the hands of small businesses since the stimulus package was enacted. That represents a 50 percent increase over levels before the package’s passage and a 250 percent increase here in Maine.
“But there is more to do because, as all of you know, small businesses are struggling,” Mills told the audience.
Several business owners at the invitation-only event urged Mills and Snowe to do more to help small businesses cover mounting debts related to the recession. Speakers said some businesses increasingly are relying on credit cards at a time when banks are shrinking credit lines and raising interest rates.
John Wissman, chief financial officer of Lincoln Paper and Tissue, said his company has seen some of its clients close their doors because they couldn’t obtain assistance covering a temporary debt that is higher than the ceiling allowed under SBA loans. He gave the example of a $20 million business having to close down because it could not obtain a bridge loan to cover a $100,000 debt.
“Right now, people cannot get loans to help them out in this very difficult period,” he said.
Wissman also reported that the $1.5 million SBA loan that Lincoln Paper and Tissue received about five years ago has translated into more than $100 million in wages for mill employees and $5 million in property taxes.