Friday, June 26, 2009

In Washington, DC, lobbying for health care reform

It's been a while since I posted; didja miss me? It's been a really, really busy couple of weeks, with important work going on.

I just returned from Washington, D.C., where I joined 80 small business owners from twenty states to lobby our Congressional delegations on health care reform. There were four of us from Montana, and we spoke with staffers in Senator Baucus' and Rep. Rehberg's offices and met with Senator Tester himself.

Small business owners from across the state have been contacting me since I was elected to talk about health care. In many cases, coverage is too expensive for them to offer health insurance to their employees, but health insurance is a deal-breaker for workers. They might be perfectly suited for a job, but will hire on to a company that offers health care rather than one that doesn't. Health care coverage has become a competitive advantage--or disadvantage--to businesses.

I've helped pass laws in the Montana Legislature to expand health coverage, including an expansion of Insure Montana, a program that small businesses can use to group together to buy health insurance for their employees in a larger pool, when ordinarily, they could not afford the policies individually.

In Montana, small business is defined as one with one hundred employees or fewer; for the vast majority of our business, that's the standard. And small business, Main Street Montana, is the engine that keeps this state running.

Every small business owner in our group supported and lobbied for a public option to be included in the health care reform bill.

In Washington, D.C., Shahid Haque-Hasrath, an immigration attorney in Helena, Montana, and Mike Craighill, a restaurant owner from Billings, joined me in lobbying our Congressmen. Shahid would like to hire on some paralegals and clerks and add attorneys to his law firm, but he cannot afford health insurance for his employees. Mike has two restaurants, and he and his wife had to cash out--at a significant loss--their retirement savings to pay medical debts. They still cannot afford health insurance, after their premiums doubled one year, then doubled again the year after that, with no major medical costs, no reason.

From other small business owners across the nation, there are similar stories. Chris Peterson, a family farmer in Iowa, told us that he recently he needed hernia surgery. The surgery was pre-approved by his insurance company, but after the surgery, the company wouldn't pay. They denied the claim after approving it initially, dropped Chris and his wife's policy, and Chris was left to pay all of the medical costs. He could participate in Iowa's pool for uninsured people--at $1300 a month in premiums--so really, he cannot participate in that plan. It's prohibitively expensive. Chris says, "For what private insurance has done to me and my family, I'll trust the government to do a much better job for health insurance."

Dan Sherry owns an engraving store in Illinois. When he interviews for jobs in his shop, he considers someone's skills and pay. But the question that ends the interview, he says, is whether or not he can provide his future employee health care. It's the deal breaker, he says. He may have the perfect graphic designer in the interview, but that person goes to work for his competition, who can offer (minimal) health coverage. Dan and and his wife had paid premiums to a health insurance company for twenty-one years, and during a particularly busy time at their business, his wife missed just one payment to the company. They were promptly dropped from coverage. They rejoined the company, at a much higher rate than they'd been paying, and for Dan's high blood pressure medication, his claim was denied as a pre-existing condition, uninsurable. For missing one payment in 21 years.

There are similar--or worse--stories from thousands more people.

The important thing is to include a public option in health care reform. Small business owners ask for it, and so do 47 million Americans currently with no health care coverage at all.

More soon on my individual meetings with our Congressmen.

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