Two sides square off over legislation MANDATORY HEALTH INSURANCE

October 08, 1990|By Mick Rood | Mick Rood,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- A business trade group formed to focus on just one issue -- mandatory health insurance -- claims the zTC enactment of such legislation could cost millions of Americans their jobs; labor, community action and consumer activists say the group is spreading false alarms about what should be a basic job benefit for all workers.

The battle is over whether the federal government should requirmost businesses to provide health insurance for their employees. A measure to do that was approved by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee in July last year. It is not expected to move any further in the dying days of the 101st Congress, but the issue is certainly headed for a major debate in the next Congress.

"The reason people are not insured to day is not becausemployers are mean-spirited, it's because health insurance costs much," says Rick Berman, a government relations consultant who chairs business-financed Partnership on Health Care & Employment.

"They've been reporting this doom and gloom stuff for somtime," counters Janelle Cousino, director of the Maryland Citizen Action Coalition. "Obviously, they just don't want to be told what to do. Some employers are getting off easy and others are doing it (offering insurance)."

Formed 18 months ago for the express purpose of opposinemployer-paid mandatory health coverage, Berman's group claims more than 600 member firms, ranging from restaurants to oil companies. In its publicity struggle with labor and consumer groups who contend health insurance is a common sense cost of doing business, the partnership commissioned a study recently that projected that between 5.4 million and 8.6 million jobs would be "at risk" if mandatory health coverage is enacted.

Of that number, the study, conducted by CONSAD Research Corp. in Pittsburgh, concluded that at least 630,000 workers and as many as 3.5 million workers in the non-farm, private economy would lose their jobs. The spread in the numbers depended on the amount of premium employers would be required to pay and just which workers would be covered, CONSAD said.

And the research firm contended that even with mandatorinsurance, depending on the coverage required, between 3.6 million and 6.1 million workers would remain uninsured.

In a compilation clearly designed to appeal to members oCongress why may be asked to vote on the issue, CONSAD broke down "jobs-at-risk" estimates by states. In Maryland, the firm said that between 6 and 11 percent of the non-farm, private workforce could be jeopardized by the mildest of three options for mandatory insurance in the state's eight districts.

The study predicted the requirement for insurance would hit the South the hardest because there is a preponderance of small businesses rather than large manufacturers, which more often offer health insurance.

"Small firms generally do not have the ability to absorb muc additional labor costs," CONSAD said. "Such employers will likely reduce total payroll and other fringe benefits to offset the cost of the health insurance."

The study noted that according to Small Business Administratiofigures, almost one-half of uninsured workers in the nation are employed by firms with from 1 to 24 employees.

"The greatest beneficiary of mandated employer healt insurance is the medical community," said Berman, "which with generally 'no questions asked' insurance coverage has not been held accountable by consumers for staggering price increases. Americans spent $550 billion on health care in 1988 -- that represents over 11 percent of the Gross National Product. According to the National Leadership Commission on Health Care, if current trends are allowed to continue, costs will double by 1995 and triple by the turn of the century."

Berman said the methodology of the CONSAD study might bdisputed, but that "you can sense the impact of this anecdotally."

"Say you're a small businessman with four part-time employeeand you're suddenly faced with mandatory insurance. You're going to go immediately to two full-time employees to afford the insurance premiums. It's undeniable that business would react that way," Berman said.

Cousino counters this assertion, using the chairman of Citizen Action's board, George Moehrle, runs a small masonry business with 70 employees in Frederick, as an example.

"He offers insurance to his employees. He's got an economicdegree. He's not a pie-in-the-sky liberal. To him, it's just another thing that make sense," Cousino said.

What isn't fair, she said, is that Moehrle is at a disadvantagwhen bidding for work against competitors who don't provide health insurance to employees.

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