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Orlando Sentinel: Use federal dollars to expand health care, help businesses

Thursday, May 01, 2014

By Frederick “Rick” J. Mellin Jr., Guest columnist

Last year, employers spent an average of $11,000 per employee for health care. Those premiums increase each year — generally around 8 percent per year — to cover costs associated with uncompensated care provided in hospitals.

In 2012, the cost of treating those who could not afford to pay for their care in Florida was nearly $3 billion. These billions of dollars in uncompensated care result in an enormous and growing “hidden tax” that places a huge burden on our state’s businesses.

On top of that is the impending implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act employer mandates. While federal delays have made the start date of those mandates uncertain, what is certain is these mandates will eventually cost Florida’s business community upwards of $250 million.

Any Florida business that employs 50 or more people will be required to offer health-care coverage to full-time employees and their dependents. Businesses that don’t meet this mandate will be required to pay up to $3,000 in penalties per employee.

As a state and as a business community, we need to address these costs. Businesses need relief from rising health-care premiums and the looming threat of financial penalties associated with the ACA. These are dollars that businesses could use to grow and expand, hire more employees or raise current employees’ salaries. And, we need to find a way to care for people who cannot afford health-care coverage.

Sen. Bill Nelson has recently suggested an interesting solution that uses tax dollars raised by counties to pay the state’s required match for the extension of health-care coverage. This wouldn’t be new taxes, but a shift of existing tax dollars, and it would require state legislative approval.

With less than a week remaining in session, it’s worth legislative consideration. And, if not the Nelson plan, perhaps our lawmakers will take another look at alternatives. The Florida Senate was on the right track last year when lawmakers designed their own plan that relied on private insurers instead of traditional Medicaid programs.

There is still time to find a way for the state to utilize about $50 billion in available federal funds to help Florida businesses offset the costs of employee health-care coverage.

When nearly 4 million uninsured Floridians require hospital services for primary care, it drives up the cost of health insurance for everyone. Ensuring our fellow Floridians have access to quality care they can afford means more cost-effective care, including early treatments and preventative medicine. It means healthier and more productive employees. It also saves billions of dollars for organizations paying for health insurance.

Extending health-care coverage by using available federal funds has an economic upside, too. In addition to saving businesses millions in tax penalties, using the federal funds earmarked for Florida will create jobs. Florida stands to gain more than 100,000 jobs in the education, construction, health-care, manufacturing, transportation and real-estate industries. Had Florida used the $50 billion that was available last year, local governments could have pulled in more than $500 million annually in revenue and the state would have saved more than $2.5 billion in state general revenue.

Health-care coverage is one of the most important issues facing our state. As president and CEO of an Orlando-based business, I believe extending affordable health-care coverage to more Floridians is the right thing to do. It will make a huge difference for all Floridians, for the business community and the state. That’s why my company has joined A Healthy Florida Works — a statewide coalition of business owners, chambers of commerce and community leaders who are calling for health-care-coverage extension in Florida.

Whether we pursue the avenue Nelson has proposed or craft another legislative solution, I hope our elected officials will strongly consider finding a way to immediately make use of these federal dollars so our businesses, and state, can continue to grow and flourish.

Frederick “Rick” J. Mellin Jr. is president and CEO of ZHA, an Orlando-based consulting and contracting firm.

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