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A series of four regional small business seminars on the new health care law wrapped up last week in Haverhill, an instructive outreach effort co-sponsored by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, the National Federation of Independent Business, numerous local chambers of commerce, Senator Steven A. Baddour and the Commonwealth Connector Authority. I would like to thank Jon Kingsdale and his outstanding staff, as well as the Division of Health Care Finance and Policy, the Division of Insurance, the Division of Unemployment Assistance and our corporate sponsor, Verizon, for their participation in this important educational effort.

This was the second round of seminars building on an earlier effort last fall by our organizations to attempt to reach out to very small employers in the small group market (50 & under.) Hundreds of small businesses were educated as to their responsibilities and options under the law. Approximately half of the attendees were very small employers with fewer than 11 full time equivalent employees - exempted from the mandates - but still impacted by the reactions of and the rising premiums for their employees. Attendees left well educated, yet still very nervous as to when the double digit increases to their premiums will end and concerned about how much their costs will rise this summer and fall as more and more of their employees opt into their small group plans.

As much as we educate our own members, I am still struck by the large number of small businesses across the Commonwealth that likely remain in the dark as to their new responsibilities on insurance offerings, Section 125’s, state reporting and the soon to be felt demands of employees. With July 1 less than two weeks away, the lack of education on the law to thousands of small employers raises the question on whether penalties for employers - like those for individuals - need to be delayed or mitigated.

Another education effort recently rolled out through the media and aimed at uninsured individuals features a coalition of forces, including some of the “receivers” of our health care dollars (insurers, hospitals, etc.) I applaud the efforts of this group and commend them for expending important dollars to educate the masses. Yet, there is a bit of déjà vu wrapped into their efforts, as some of the biggest proponents (and beneficiaries) of health care reform during the legislative debate have once again joined hands to help make this important experiment work. They have embarked in their Phase 2 of seeking further support for the law from all of the “payers” of health care dollars - consumers, employers and taxpayers. These efforts are perfectly appropriate and important at this point in the overall process.

But what I am waiting for is Phase 3. That is hopefully the time in which companies like Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts, with hundreds of thousands of new subscribers, will take steps to make sure that small group employers get comparable premiums to big business and big government, and will start actively fighting the providers on behalf of all of their customers. And I am waiting for companies like Partners Health Care to explain to us how they are now going to save us money with all of the new payers in the system. And to further explain to us why unprecedented expansion (such as the new facility in Danvers, only miles from their own Salem hospital and less than a mile away from the Lahey Clinic) is necessary.

As the new law rolls out, truly it is time to put the “payers” first, and to put the “receivers” of our dollars under an intense microscope.

Jon B. Hurst is the President of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, a statewide association formed in 1910 with 3,000 members.

This program aired on June 18, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.