June 07, 2020
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Health insurance pinch driven home to Collins

Contributed | BDN
Contributed | BDN
Toni Kirk of Canaan explains to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, how she inspects and assembles some of the products manufactured by C.M. Almy in Pittsfield, such as this sanctuary candle holder. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER COUSINS

PITTSFIELD, Maine — Despite the deadlock in Congress regarding health care reform, the administration at C.M. Almy in Pittsfield is hopeful that relief is coming soon.

Michael Fendler, the company vice president who oversees about 75 employees in the manufacture of ceremonial church equipment and vestments for clergy, told U.S. Sen. Susan Collins on Wednesday that health care reform would relieve pressure on his company and its efforts to retain its highly skilled work force.

A 20 percent dip in sales in the past year and a 33 percent increase in its cost-per-employee health and dental insurance program over five years have forced the company to make decisions it didn’t want to make.

On the heels of laying off 20 people in November 2008, the company has curtailed its 401(k) contributions and adjusted deductibles in its health and dental insurance plans to save money. Fendler said he expects sales to rebound, partly due to a diversification in what the company sells, but hopes the company can maintain its policy of paying 75 percent of employees’ health insurance premiums and 55 percent for their spouses.

“It’s becoming a burden for us that is unsustainable,” Fendler told Collins. “We’re kind of in a holding pattern right now.”

Collins, who was in Pittsfield to tour the company’s Ruth Road manufacturing plant, said despite the gridlock in Congress and a health insurance bill that seems to have stalled, she hopes help is on the way. President Barack Obama and members of Congress will convene next week for a televised health care summit.

“I’m still hopeful that we can get to a bipartisan health care bill,” Collins said. “There are certain provisions in the bill passed by the Senate that would have widespread support. My view is that we should put those provisions that everyone supports in a bill, pass it and send it to the president. Of course, that may be too logical with the way Congress is these days.”

One provision Collins said she supports is tax breaks for small businesses that institute wellness plans.

C.M. Almy already has a workplace wellness plan in place, which constitutes a nurse in the building for four hours a week and a doctor for two hours a week. Their primary function is treating and preventing on-the-job injuries, which Fendler said has already saved the company substantially with reduced injury rates and fewer employees absent from work for medical appointments. Plus, the doctor and nurse have become trusted members of the work force. Many employees have begun to ask them questions about medical issues not related to their work.

Denise Dumont-Bernier, director of MaineGeneral Medical Center’s Workplace Health program, oversees the wellness program at C.M. Almy. She said the number of Maine businesses with similar programs has been increasing, though there are roadblocks that make a comprehensive wellness plan too expensive for small businesses.

Companies below a certain size pay insurance premiums based on a “community rating,” a measure of the health of a community. Larger companies that are self-insured pay premiums based on the health of their employees. That means large companies that make their employees healthier enjoy major savings because of fewer claims.

The community rating system “is killing small businesses who want to do a wellness program,” said Dumont-Bernier. “Maine is one of only a few states [that do] it this way.”

Fendler said despite the obstacles, Maine’s senators can make a difference in Washington.

“I’m hoping Senator Collins and Senator Snowe are able to find some common ground [with Democrats] so this is not such a partisan fight,” he said. “This is something that needs to happen.”

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