EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 30, 2009

NH tries to cut health care costs for small businesses

By Ali LaFay

Small businesses in New Hampshire are struggling to provide affordable health care for their employees — and the state is doing something about it.

As of Oct. 1, small-business owners could save up to 20 percent on health care costs, thanks to a new health care reform plan enacted by Gov. John Lynch.

"The cost is obviously high and it's on everybody's mind," said Dr. Ryan Storey, owner of Hampstead Animal Hospital.

Storey used to fund 100 percent of health care expenses for his 10 full-time employees, but when costs got too high, he had to reduce his contribution to 70 percent.

"I think it's good that individual states are taking it upon themselves to address the issues," he said.

The No. 1 concern of New Hampshire small-business owners is controlling health care costs, according to a recent survey conducted by the national organization Small Business Majority.

Fifty-two percent of small businesses in the Granite State do not provide insurance for their employees. Eighty-four percent of them said it's because they simply can't afford it.

"Small businesses are just getting crushed by the health care crisis. It's impeding growth and it's impeding entrepreneurship," said John Arensmeyer, founder and CEO of Small Business Majority.

The new program, New Hampshire Healthcare First, was first introduced during the 2008 legislative session. It will give businesses with fewer than 50 employees additional health care incentives — health questionnaires, disease management programs and wellness incentives — to keep workers healthy and insurance costs low.

"Current offerings really don't have a full array of wellness benefits and initiatives," said Mike Wilkey, director of Life, Accident and Health for the New Hampshire Insurance Department. "Through those initiatives, we're hoping to keep people in better overall health, which makes health care claims less expensive."

Under the new program, the average cost of insuring one small-business employee will be $330 a month, Wilkey said. And it will barely cost the state a dime, he said.

"(The cost) is minimal, if at all," Wilkey said. "It's part of the normal business operations here."

Sue Hopkins, general director of the Douglas and Johnson Funeral Home in Salem, is ready to listen to specifics about the new plan. The funeral home has three full-time employees.

"I'd certainly want to see some information about it, as long as it covers the same things," Hopkins said. "Anything that reduces costs is a good thing."

New Hampshire Healthcare First will involve all health care providers that had at least 1,000 small-business customers as of Jan. 1, including Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, CIGNA and MVP Health Care.

Lisa Kaplan Howe, the director of New Hampshire Voices for Health, said although the program is by no means the final solution to the state's health care crisis, it's definitely a step in the right direction.

"We certainly have been strong supporters of the Healthcare First plan," Kaplan Howe said. "We see it as a great step that the state has taken to make health care more affordable for the small business community."

New Hampshire Healthcare First may be just one program in a wave of statewide and national health care reforms.

Earlier this month, Lynch signed a bill extending the eligibility for Healthy Kids, a state insurance assistance program, which will provide affordable health care to more low-income young adults. The bill will extend the age limit for eligibility from 18 to 26.

Yesterday, the New Hampshire branch of Healthcare for America Now spent 12 hours making calls to New Hampshire residents, encouraging them to call their congressional delegation to encourage them to vote in favor of America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009. A spokeswoman said the organization is confident New Hampshire's congressmen will vote in favor of the bill, which aims to lower health care costs across the board.

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