JEFFERSON CITY - Support for a bill designed to extend one health coverage option to small employers is waning among the business groups it intends to reach.
Legislation sponsored by Rep. Tim Harlan, D-Columbia, would make the Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan, which offers health insurance to pools of state and local government employees, available for businesses - including sole proprietorships - with fewer than 50 employees. The House gave the bill first-round approval March 9. The Budget Committee is now reviewing it since the estimated cost to the state is $140,350 during the next fiscal year.
"The cost is extremely low and will be recovered through premiums, so there's ultimately no cost to the state," Harlan said, expecting the bill to be approved by the Budget Committee.
Abortion, however, has snuck into the picture. Previously, debate focused on economic matters such as whether the new pool would attract only high-risk businesses, keeping premiums too high to actually provide relief. The National Federation of Independent Business, which originally approved of the bill as an option for its members, no longer supports it after the House included a ban of coverage for elective abortions. Rep. Linda Bartelsmeyer, R-Aurora, offered the amendment to ban them.
"We have never had a position on the abortion issue, nor will we," said Brad Jones, NFIB's state director. "It would be a powder keg to support it as is."
"I'm disappointed to see the abortion issue get involved," Harlan said. "There are serious constitutional problems as to exactly what it means. We'll deal with it when we get to the Senate."
Jones said the NFIB is discussing whether to create its own pool to purchase health insurance. Harlan's bill would allow the small business pool to spin off from Missouri Consolidated should its members elect to do so.
Chris Long, president of Associated Industries of Missouri, which represents 1,500 businesses of varying sizes throughout the state, agrees that the bill has drifted into unintended waters. "It's gone beyond legislation to address rising health care premium costs into more controversial areas."
Long would prefer tax incentives or credits for small business employers offering health coverage, particularly credits for employers offering coverage for the first time. "My first choice would be to give this task to the private sector. Through the purchasing power of an association or business group, we can address the problems."
But Long still considers the bill a choice for his membership because it doesn't contain what the business community refers to as "mandated benefits," or procedures a plan is required to cover. "I don't think it will be an attractive option, but some will still take it."
The Missouri Chamber of Commerce also supports tax credits for small businesses offering health insurance but takes a stronger position against Harlan's bill. "We're opposed to being mandated in terms of forcing the insurance companies to bid on all three pools," said president Joe Frappier. "It could lead to the death of the pool and destroy choices rather than create additional ones. It's not viable over the long term."
The Columbia Chamber of Commerce, however, plans to poll its members about their position on the bill. "I think there will be interest if the pricing and services are right," said executive vice president Don Laird. "It merits looking into." Laird estimates that 80 percent of the Columbia chamber's 1,100 members have fewer than 20 employees.