Plan to provide health care for all worries businesses

Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Business advocates said Tuesday they are keeping a close eye on a bill that would require all Alaskans to have health insurance and some businesses to pay for a piece of it.

The latest version of the bill would require businesses that pay more than $500,000 overall a year to their employees to either provide health coverage or pay a 1 to 2 percent tax on its payroll. Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, sponsored the legislation.

That tax would help cover the cost of insuring lower-income, uninsured Alaskans, whose insurance would be paid for on a sliding scale based on income. Those who are in the higher income brackets and needed coverage would have to pay for insurance themselves. Alaskans who have basic health coverage would not be affected by the bill.

French said about 100,000 state residents, including 60,000 with jobs, don't have health insurance, and the cost of caring for the uninsured was driving up the costs for everyone else.

But Denny DeWitt, the Alaska state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said it was unfair to place the burden of insuring the state's residents on business owners. He said there was only a finite amount of dollars that small businesses had to spend on wages and benefits, and "We think it's better left to the employers and the employees to divvy up that pot."

Ron Flint, owner of Nugget Alaska Outfitter, said it was better if employees were more personally invested in keeping health care costs down, rather than expecting the government to take care of them.

"If government starts getting involved, then a lot of times, you know, it doesn't turn out the best," Flint said.

French said he was aware of the concerns of the business community but said his plan was an equitable way of making employers who aren't providing health insurance for their employees cover some of the cost they are passing off to other private or public sources.

"Most people get their insurance through their work," French said. "It just seems fair to spread the financial contributions around."

French said the state would pay for most of the program's cost and the tax on business owners would not be a huge part of the "financial equation."

State estimates peg the state's cost of funding French's bill at $172 million to $328 million a year. French said he hadn't finished calculating the cost of his program but said it would be "significantly less" than some state estimates.

French's bill has passed through one Senate committee and needs the approval of at least two more before moving to the Senate floor for a vote. French said supporters of the bill face an uphill climb and it would likely take multiple years to advance the idea of universal health care in Alaska. But he added it was only a matter of time before the idea became a reality, and likened the effort to bring about universal health care to the civil-rights struggle.

"I believe that someday were going to look back on this era ... we're going to ask ourselves: 'What took so long to cover our uninsured with health insurance?'" French said.

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