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"Universal" Means Businesses Too by Celia Wcislo

As recently reported by Alice Dembner in The Boston Globe, the Commonwealth needs to focus its attention on collecting business penalties from corporations who do not currently offer affordable health insurance to their employees.

The good news is that over 70% of Massachusetts residents get their coverage from employer sponsored health plans. The bad news: There are still several hundred thousand workers and their families that remain uninsured today.

The top dozen employers who employ more than 50 people and fail to cover a large part of their workforce are shocking.

This list includes Stop & Shop, Wal-Mart, McDonald's, UNICCO, CVS, Shaw's, Burger King, Wendy's, Home Depot, Friendly's, and Target. In 2006, the Division of Health Care Finance and Policy reported that 168,000 workers employed by these same companies, and some of their family members, were forced to rely on MassHealth or the free care pool because they had no other way to get medical care.

We cannot have a universal health care system unless all of the business community participates and meets the legal - and I would say social - contract of our health insurance reform law.

In my perfect world, someone from the business community would seize this moment and start a public outreach campaign - a campaign to educate and promote the role of business as good corporate citizens in this endeavor. I can think of several large and civic minded Massachusetts businesses that have respect and experience to unite the business community and truly excel in this role. It's one thing for government, or healthcare advocates, or a healthcare union for that matter, to call for greater participation; it's another thing if it comes from a peer. While Rick Lord of AIM and the Connector staff have made great inroads in this area, the reality is the business community is much broader and their issues are more complex.

Here's one very motivating fact for that enterprising business leader: Taxpayers (both employers and employees) currently foot the bill for those businesses who do not offer health insurance : last year 361 companies shifted their share of health insurance cost onto the taxpayers, for a cost of over $234 million in one year alone.

It's certainly a fact that many businesses that offer insurance will see the amount they pay increase as new individuals sign up because of Chapter 58. The good news: The state has agreed to subsidize plans for many people making under 300% FPL and who or are not eligible for employer sponsored coverage (This includes the full cost of the coverage for children when their parents sign up). And the reality is that thousands of individuals are already writing their checks to pay for their health insurance plans under the Connector.

The public campaign that is about to be launched for Connector plans shouldn't solely emphasize individual responsibility. It should also emphasize businesses' role in reform and corporate responsibility. The Patrick administration needs to look down the road and strengthen and enforce the "fair share" components that were originally written into Chapter 58. The current projected levels of employer penalties do not do enough to make businesses act responsibly, nor will they be large enough to help pay for this reform. Universal coverage means we all must contribute our "fair share". And that contribution must include those businesses who have decided not to provide health coverage for their employees!

Celia Wcislo, Assistant Division Director, 1199SEIU, MA Division
and member of the Connector Authority board

This program aired on May 15, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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