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On ACA Deadline, King Presses for Changes to Health Care Law
03/31/2014   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Today is the last day to sign up for insurance on the Affordable Care Act's online marketplace. Though it will take time for the full implications of the law to become clear, Maine Sen. Angus King says some changes are already in order. The independent congressman is co-sponsoring three bills to improve the federal health law for businesses and employees. As Patty Wight reports, reactions are mixed as to whether these are the right changes at the right time.

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Sen. King wants to be clear:  He supports the Affordable Care Act. But that doesn't mean it couldn't use a little tweaking.

"I've never seen a piece of legislation in the history of the world that doesn't need correction over time," King says. "Probably the best example is the United States Constitution, which has been amended 27 times."

King is backing three bills that he says will provide greater choice, flexibility, and affordability under the health reform law. One bill, called the Small Business Stability Act, would change the mandate that requires employers with more than 50 employees to provide health insurance, by creating a new, higher threshold of 100 or more employees.
   
"Which would relieve the paperwork burden on companies that are truly pretty small," King says. "And we're getting a lot of information back from companies that are in the 40 to 50 range that say, 'Look, we don't have full-time accountants. It really is getting more complicated if we have to do this.'"

Supporters of the change include Maine Restaurant Association President Gregory Dugal, who says the law will help restaurant owners who felt stifled by the employee threshold.

"I think that people that had multiple businesses were also trying to look at ways that they could get under that threshold. Now this gives them the ability to not even think about that, to be able to supply the jobs and to grow their business and hopefully provide even more jobs, because the expense of health insurance won't be weighing as heavily on them," Dugal says.

Another bill - called the Expanded Consumer Choice Act - would add a new high-deductible "Copper" plan to the online insurance marketplace, which already offers Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum plans. King says the Copper Plan would offer low premiums, and more choice for consumers.

"It's a question of how much of the risk you're carrying versus the insurance company," he says.

But consumer health advocates in Maine question whether the Copper plan is necessary. "In Maine, we've seen that people are really showing a high desire for more coverage - for better coverage - not less," says Emily Brostek of the Maine-based group Consumers for Affordable Health Care.

Brostek says February enrollment figures show that 73 percent of Mainers who enrolled in the marketplace picked the mid-level Silver plan. Brostek says there are already existing catastrophic plans available to people who qualify for certain exemptions; the problem for consumers is how cumbersome it can be to sign up for those plans, which are available only through a paper process, not online.

"So I think for people who it might be a good fit to have a higher deductbile plan, making that more of a simple process would actually serve those needs rather than creating a whole new plan, potentially." Brostek says.

The third bill King is sponsoring would expand small business tax credits to more employers and for a longer period of time. Though supporters say the aim is to make the law easier for both employers and workers, people like Doug Springer of Ellsworth are expressing doubts about the entire process. Springer runs a gymnastics center, and gets his health insurance through another full-time job.

"My employer has about 300 employees, so they fit under this exemption for right now, but they may have to, at some point, for whatever reason, be forced to either alter the choices that we have here, or just get rid of all of their health insurance all together," he says, "which will then force our family into this exchange. I just don't feel comfortable about it at all because I don't feel like I should be forced into anything."

Sen. King says these three bills are a good starting point to improving the law. Four other Democratic senators are co-sponsoring the bills, in hopes of garnering more support from colleagues in both parties.


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