Many Clark County employers already comply with health care law

Experts at forum help businesses get grasp of new rules

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Memo to Clark County employers worrying about facing penalties under federal health care reform: You're likely already in compliance with the law, but if you're not sure, you've got time to figure it out.

That message was among many delivered by experts who spoke Wednesday during a seminar aimed at helping area businesses understand how the federal Affordable Care Act will affect them.

Part of the seminar, held at Vancouver's Heathman Lodge and attended by more than 70 people, focused on the large-employer requirement. That requirement calls on companies with more than 50 employees to provide affordable insurance coverage to their workers or face penalties.

However, most Clark County businesses won't face any penalties because they already meet the large-employer rules, according to DJ Wilson, an expert in health care reform who gave the seminar's keynote address. Based on his conservative analysis, Wilson, CEO of Lynnwood-based Wilson Strategic Communications, said only 72 firms in Clark County, or 0.12 percent of businesses in the county, employ more than 50 workers and don't provide insurance. Those companies would need to develop a health insurance plan or face annual fines.

In a phone interview after the seminar, Wilson said that because Clark is a commuter county, the number of large companies that could face penalties may be even lower, possibly between 40 to 50 firms. The county's situation mirrors the nation's, he said. Roughly 90 percent of large employers in the U.S. will avoid penalties because they already generally meet all the new health reform standards.

"The most important thing any business can do is focus on the value for their health care dollars," Wilson said. "Don't worry about the penalties, because the penalties probably don't apply to you."

'Time to breathe'

Experts also said companies have more time to comply with the large-employer requirement. That's because the Obama administration delayed implementation of the rule until 2015. What employers shouldn't do is take the delay as an excuse to put off dealing with it, said Sarah Friend, employee benefit consultant for Portland-based The Partners Group.

That's partly because the definition of a large employer isn't as straightforward as some may think, she said. Part-time and temporary workers — not just full-time workers — are factored into calculations that determine whether employers must meet the large employer mandate. So it behooves companies to do their homework now to avoid "ending up in the doghouse" of the health law, Friend said. The good news, she added, is that the delay in putting the large employer rule into effect "gives us time to breathe and time to do this thing right."

Jean Roque, president of Portland-based Trupp HR, Inc., a human resources consulting company, urged companies to prepare by building a compliance checklist and consulting their advisers, including insurance brokers. "Your broker," she said, "is really your best friend."

Wednesday's seminar was organized by the Columbia River Economic Development Council and sponsored by numerous businesses and community organizations.

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com