Health care reform a big issue for small businesses

Posted Oct. 30, 2009, at 8:38 p.m.

For more than 50 years, politicians have known that our health care system was broken. For more than 50 years, they have failed to reform it.

This time things will be different: Failure is not an option. The average family of four is paying $29,000 a year for health care in taxes, lower wages, insurance and out-of-pocket medical expenses. More than 60 percent of all personal bankruptcies are now at least partly the result of health care costs. It is estimated that the U.S. economy lost as much as $207 billion in 2007 as a result of the poor health and shorter life spans of the more than 47 million uninsured.

Although small-business owners often stay out of policy debates for fear of alienating clients, we must participate in this one. The status quo is a drain on Maine’s economy, is morally wrong and is unsustainable.

Small businesses are increasingly forced to choose between paying skyrocketing insurance premiums, which they cannot afford, and reducing coverage for their employees. In a recession, all too often the result is no coverage at all. At the same time, the health insurance companies continue to make enormous profits, spend prodigiously on lobbying and pay huge bonuses to their executives.

All businesses stand to benefit from a system where everyone shares the responsibility to insure every American. Small businesses are more than willing to do our part. Our families cannot wait any longer. Nor can our economy.

A recent survey conducted by Small Business Majority found that just 42 percent of Maine small-business owners reported paying for health insurance for their employees. Of those, 81 percent say they’re struggling to do so. The No. 1 concern for Maine’s small-business owners regarding health care reform is controlling costs, followed by providing coverage for everyone and assuring high-quality minimum benefits.

Our senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, now have an extraordinarily influential role in the health care debate. That is why anti-reform forces are desperate to keep them from moving forward in a bipartisanfashion that takes the concerns of everyday Mainers into consideration rather than the party line. Fortunately, based on our senators’ distinguished records, Mainers should feel confident that they are unlikely to cave in to the cynical partisanship that has defined the Republican Party’s contribution to the most pressing domestic issue facing our country.

If the obstructionists succeed, nobody is going to soon forget, forgive or ignore the fact that Congress had the chance to save and improve lives and prevent medical bankruptcies and failed again.

It would not be just a legislative or political failure. Congress understands the problems of our health care system and knows that failure to act will result in hardworking families being forced to choose among food, rent and their health. It will result in sicker patients and more expensive care. It will be more of what we already know to be the most expensive health care system in the world — and one of the least cost-effective.

We believe that healthy families translate into a stronger community and are good for business. That is why I, and the rest of the Maine Small Business Forum, have a simple message for our representatives in Congress: You are holding the fate of many small businesses in your hands. If you stand up for us, we’ll stand up for you.

Ben Wootten is chair of the Maine Small Business Forum and president of Wind River Capital Management in Ellsworth.

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