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Problem expected to worsen

Health care costs remain top concern for businesses

One of the top concerns of Mississippi business leaders is the rising cost of health care. Indications are that the problem could get worse in the near future, and that it could lead to more businesses dropping health insurance plans for employees.

“The cost of health care is our number one concern aside from the current price of poultry,” said Mike McAlpin, president of the Mississippi Poultry Association. “Any added cost at this point with chicken prices at historic lows is a major concern. It is not a mystery that health care costs have risen at dramatic rates over the past decade plus. Every conceivable idea, plan and program has and is being tried. But we don’t see a de-escalation in the costs in the near future. We aren’t being singled out as an industry in that regard. That is a general business problem.”

McAlpin sees a glimmer of hope in that this issue is considered critical by everyone from business and government officials to consumers.

“People have recognized that this problem is not going away,” McAlpin said. “When people get in that kind of mode, generally things start happening that help turn the problem around.”

Jerry McBride, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, said the top two concerns of his members are finding qualified employees and health care. There are concerns particularly about a proposed Department of Labor ruling that would require faster processing of claims and appeals. That sounds like a reasonable idea, but is expected to lead to higher health care costs.

“We wouldn’t have a problem with reasonable changes in the law to require that claims be paid in a reasonable length of time,” McBride said. “But with the mandates that come from the federal government and through the state Legislature every year, the costs continually rise and rise and rise.”

McBride recently attended a National Association of Manufacturers meeting where a number of participants said they are considering not providing health insurance programs in the future. They are talking about giving employees the money the company has been paying for health insurance, and letting employees find their own health insurance.

The Mississippi CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) is another example of a well-intentioned program that could cause an increase in health care premiums in Mississippi. CHIP is designed to help families who can’t afford private health insurance, but make too much money to qualify for Medicaid. McBride said CHIP could increase insurance premiums by taking children out of the health insurance pool.

“We fear draining those healthy bodies out of the pool you are covering could cause your premiums to go up,” McBride said. “We don’t lobby against mandates, but all these mandates from state and federal legislation are causing costs to go up. The MMA philosophy is that the government shouldn’t dictate the terms of contracts between individuals. All those mandates add costs. On the other hand, people are trying to do as much as they can to find qualified employees and keep them. A good health plan goes a long way towards keeping employees. But when the cost of it gets to the point where it is prohibitive, I don’t know what is going to happen.”

The current Patients’ Bill of Rights being considered in Congress is also expected to result in increased health costs. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Mississippi says that the far-reaching legislation being considered could drive up health insurance premiums and may cause hundred of thousands of Americans to lose their health care coverage.

“The Patients’ Bill of Rights and other big government proposals could be hazardous to health care benefits,” Blue Cross and Blue Shield warns.

Blue Cross says the proposed legislation contains numerous provisions that will have the unintended but inevitable consequence of increasing health care costs, increasing the number of uninsured Americans, and imposing new administrative burdens on the health care system.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that the House version of the bill would open the door to millions of lawsuits, forcing a rise in premiums and creating an “unacceptably destructive upward cost spiral” in the health care system.

Quinton Dickerson, communications director for U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering’s office said the proposed legislation is now in the hands of a joint House/Senate conference committee.

“Obviously, one of our main concerns is how to balance patients’ rights without increasing costs that in turn could raise health care costs,” Dickerson said. “Within a Patients’ Bill of Rights there are three things: rights of patients, rights to appeals of decisions that plans make, and third, access. If costs go up, access will go down. There is no easy solution to do that.

Dickerson said liability is a key sticking point. Should people have right to sue an HMO if they feel they have been harmed or injured? And should there be damage caps for lawsuits against HMOs?

“From the Mississippi business standpoint, we want to find a way to have a good Patients’ Bill of Rights that does not allow frivolous and excessive lawsuits, does not increase costs, does not pass on costs to the employers, and does not hold employers liable for third-party insurance decisions,” Dickerson said. “We don’t want to do anything that causes employers to have to drop health insurance plans for employers.”

Although Mississippi doesn’t have a lot of HMOs, Pickering’s office has been getting a lot of calls from constituents on the issue. He is on the House Health Subcommittee, and hence has been involved in hearings on the issue. Pickering has also been holding forums in Mississippi on the issue of health care that included a section on the Patients’ Bill of Rights. A forum was held in September in Meridian and another is planned Friday, April 28 from 2 to 4 p.m. at Holmes Community College. For more information, call Dickerson at (202) 225-5031.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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