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Senate Bill Includes Health Insurance Plan Mandate for Construction Workers

A centerpiece of the Senate’s healthcare reform legislation is the creation of health insurance mandates. These provisions require employers with over a certain number of employees to either provide a health insurance plan to their staff or pay a fine. Under the current system, a majority of Americans receive health insurance through the firm they work for; reform in both the House of Representatives and the Senate includes federal subsidies to allow others to buy a health insurance plan themselves. Democratic legislators had to balance their goal of insuring as much of the country as possible with minimizing costs. In order to do so, they had to ensure that companies wouldn’t take advantage of the subsidized health insurance exchange markets and drop their existing coverage.

However, those crafting the bills have acknowledged that many small businesses are unable to afford a group health insurance plan for their workforce. Many of these businesses do not currently provide insurance. Therefore, businesses with under 50 employees are exempt from the $750 excise tax. This tax would otherwise be levied on a per-employee basis, if any full-time worker who used a federal subsidy to buy a health insurance plan. Right before the Senate version passed, a new exception was added into the mix.

Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley proposed an addition to protect construction workers. In the construction industry, the majority of firms are smaller than the general threshold: 90 percent of them employ fewer than 20 people. Merkley’s provision limits the exemption for the industry to businesses with under five employees. Contractors who use union labor, regardless of their size, must often spend anywhere from 12.5% to 20% of payroll on a health insurance plan for their workers. Meanwhile, non-union contractors have the option of forgoing health insurance–this allows them to low-ball bids, which supporters of the exception claim will result in an unfair competitive advantage. Employees with the latter firms would have gone uninsured in the past, whereas now the federal government would pick up the tab for subsidizing their health care.

Tradespeople employed by contractors risk their health at a higher rate than typical office workers in other industries. Workplace injuries are more common for plumbers, electricians, construction workers, roofers, carpenters, and those in similar professions. While workman’s compensation insurance is a legal requirement for these firms, it often does not cover the complete expense associated with overuse injuries and other health problems not directly associated with an on-the-job injury. A quality health insurance plan may make them more effective employees in the long run.

Of course, some associations representing the building trades, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Home Builders, are unhappy with the last minute insertion. They believe that the mandate will result in tens of thousands of jobs lost, at a time when the unemployment rate is over 10 percent. Although small businesses will be able to take advantage of two years’ tax credits for buying a health insurance plan, trade associations believe that the credits will be insufficient. Republican Senators are also opposed to what they feel is a high amount of “pork”, or sweetheart deals for certain districts in exchange for votes. The Merkeley provision was, in fact, one of those 11th-hour deals struck by Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The House rejected a similar proposal during its own negotiations last fall. With a smaller majority, the Senate needed to shore up union lobbyist support. That constituency is increasingly concerned with the impact health care reform will have on their existing plans: by extending the length of time insurers must allow adult children to remain on a health insurance plan, as well as eliminating lifetime and annual limits on coverage, their costs will increase significantly. Labor unions also oppose the tax that the Senate plans to impose on the generous “Cadillac” insurance plans more prevalent among union workers. Democrats claim that such a tax is necessary in order to pay for part of the cost of healthcare reform. It remains to be seen if construction workers remain a special case when both chambers of Congress are finished combining their respective bills.

(Image: billjacobus1 under CC 2.0)

Yamileth Medina PhotoAbout Author
Yamileth Medina is an up and coming expert on Health Insurance and Healthcare Reform. She aims to help people realize that they can find a quality health insurance plan right now. Yamileth lives in Miami, FL.

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