Businesses Hail Delay in Health Law Mandate

(The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT) -

Home caregivers who work for Visiting Angels in Douglasville, Ga. will soon have something they don’t now: the option of buying health insurance through their jobs.

It just may not happen until 2015, in the wake of this week’s White House decision to delay a key part of the Affordable Care Act, said Teresa Janiga, owner of the franchise.

“We’re going to make it happen,” Janiga said Wednesday, hours after federal officials postponed for one year a penalty for mid-sized or large employers who don’t provide coverage.

The extension, she said, “gives us time to wrap our brain around the law. It’s such a relief that this will not have to be a rash decision.”

Other businesses hailed the delay as well. It puts off until 2015 – but doesn’t eliminate – the $2,000-per-employee fine on employers who have the equivalent of at least 50-full-time workers and don’t offer them affordable health insurance as determined by the government.

The delay came as a shock for supporters and critics of the law alike, and has some industry observers wondering if it could be a sign of more trouble ahead for the Obama administration’s rollout of the law.

“The delay is a relief, but it doesn’t fix the underlying problems, which are becoming clearer by the minute,” Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution on Wednesday. “This is unaffordable for businesses, for governments and for individuals.”

Bill Goudey, CEO of two Copeland’s of New Orleans restaurants in Cobb County, Ga., said he’d spent about 100 hours studying the law and its requirements but hadn’t decided whether it would be better to offer insurance or take the penalty. The company has about 100 full-time equivalents, he said, well over the limit.

“In my mind, this gives us the time to do due diligence,” Goudey said. “The reality is that meeting the Jan. 1, 2014 deadline seemed like an impossibility for us to evaluate our options, due to the complexity of the legislation.”

Rick McAllister, president of the Georgia Retail Association, said the extra time will allow employers to determine how to best meet the needs of their businesses and their workers.

Some strategies that have been discussed, such as cutting workers or trimming the number of hours per worker in order to avoid the penalty, can actually hurt a business. With more time to plan, those might not be necessary, he said.

Employers may have some breathing room, but they still face a penalty eventually and have important long-term business decisions to make, said Gary Claxton, a vice president with the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.

“It obviously lets them take longer to make decisions and see how things work out in the exchanges,” Claxton said. “When they are making decisions in 2015, there will be less certainty.”

The exchanges are due to open Oct. 1. Last month, the Government Accountability Office released a report saying many critical tasks remain.

President Barack Obama also said in a recent speech to expect some “glitches” and “hiccups” as the exchanges get up and running.

Still, Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, wrote on the White House blog Tuesday that the marketplaces are “full steam ahead” and will open on time.

Health policy experts say the employer mandate to provide coverage isn’t as key as other provisions of the law and won’t dramatically affect its aim of providing health coverage to 25 to 30 million uninsured Americans.

Most employers already offer health insurance, and that’s unlikely to change, said Tim Sweeney, a health care policy analyst with the nonprofit Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. It will give businesses more time to consider whether to offer coverage or assess whether the coverage they already offer is really affordable for their workers, Sweeney said.

Federal health officials will also have more time to streamline the new administrative burdens and regulations businesses have feared.

“It shows that the administration is being flexible with trying to navigate through the real-world challenges of implementing some new rules that the existing system was not set up to deal with,” Sweeney said.