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Small businesses worry about health law’s unknowns

Small business owners -- like Dirk and Trish White, of Harry Race Pharmacy -- worry about the effects of the Affordable Care Act. (KCAW Photo/Rachel Waldholz)

When the Supreme Court decided to uphold most of the Affordable Care Act, it raised a whole batch of new questions about how the legislation will play out on the ground — and it’s those unknowns that have some local businesses on edge. In Sitka, business owners said that while they find the law’s intentions admirable, they worry it will come with onerous new costs and regulations.

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Dirk and Trish White own Sitka’s two pharmacies, with 33 employees. And they say that as both pharmacists and small business owners, they are worried about the impacts of the affordable care act. Asked for their first reaction when they heard the Supreme Court had upheld the law, Dirk White said, “You can’t put that on the radio.”

His wife was more diplomatic.

“There’s parts that I agree with,” Trish White said, “And there’s parts that I just don’t see how they can be implemented without a lot of struggle and cost to the average American.”

The Whites’ main concern is new regulations. They say they already spend thousands of dollars every year to keep their pharmacies in compliance with existing federal rules. They even have someone on staff whose only job is to make sure they are following all the relevant regulations. The Whites say they don’t know what kind of regulations will come with the Affordable Care Act, but they worry it could increase those costs.

“There are parts that are great,” said Dirk, “But we’re going to be subjected to all these new regulations, that I don’t see us being able to afford as a small business.”

The Whites also offer medical benefits for their 28 full-time employees, and they say they are holding their breath to see how the Affordable Care Act might affect the cost of providing medical coverage. The goal, of course, is for those costs to go down.

But, says Dirk, ” In 30 years, it’s never gone down. It’s only gone up, double digits.”

In that worry, they’re not alone.

“I don’t think people realize how large the burden is for small businesses to offer healthcare plans,” said Stephanie Brenner, owner of  Brenner’s Fine Clothing and Gifts, on Lincoln Street.

Brenner has 7 employees, 4 full time and 3 seasonal. Her business doesn’t offer benefits because of the cost.

“We’d have to cut people’s wages to offer them benefits,” she said.

Under the Affordable Care Act, businesses with 50 employees or more would have to offer health insurance plans. Neither Brenner’s nor the Whites are large enough to face that requirement, and the law includes tax credits to help smaller businesses afford coverage for employees. But neither business knows yet if they are eligible.

The Whites do think the law has some good aspects.

“To make healthcare available to everybody is an honorable thing, and I would wish for that to work,” said Trish White.  “I like the idea that kids can still be on their parents plan. That’s huge, that’s had a huge impact personally on us.”

White is referring to a part of the law that’s already in effect, which allows children to stay on their parents’ employer-provided insurance plans until they are 26 years old.

But, she said, she worries about the cost.

“Look at the reality of the cost of those things. Something has to give somwehere else, I think,” she said.

In the end, the Whites agree, nobody yet knows what the impacts will be.

“I think it would behoove us all to do a little more homework to understand the finer points of this,” Trish White said.













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