An eleventh-hour backroom deal in the U.S. Senate is sending shock waves through America's construction industry, and could cost thousands of jobs.
The Senate health care reform bill passed last month exempts small businesses with fewer than 50 employees from government-imposed mandates requiring that employers provide health insurance to workers or face a hefty penalty.
But Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., managed to slip five paragraphs into Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's 383-page manager's amendment that would require construction contractors with at least five full-time employees and more than $250,000 in annual payroll to provide workers with health insurance benefits. If they didn't, and if any of their employees received federally subsidized health insurance coverage, contractors would have to pay a penalty of $750 for each full-time worker.
Sen. Merkley's provision was never offered as an amendment to the health care legislation so that senators had an opportunity to debate the measure. He must have known that once senators read the language they would realize that it unfairly targets small business employers in the construction industry and would ultimately result in more job loss. During these difficult economic times, having a new federal government mandate on construction contractors is not the answer to getting people back to work. With construction in this country nearly at a standstill and the industry unemployment rate at 22.7 percent -- more than twice the national average -- contractors are struggling to stay in business. The health care mandate would only add to their misery.
There is a better solution. I believe that health care is best administered on free-market principles. To truly reform the health care system, Congress must explore every means available to help reduce the cost to the public and small business owners instead of passing mandates that favor one industry over another.
Health care reform that is fair to everyone should include medical malpractice reform that will lower the cost of health insurance for everyone; small business health plans to allow workers in small businesses and the self-employed to join together to obtain insurance plans that large employers and unions currently enjoy; and portability so that the health care insurance policy remains with the worker, not the employer, while he or she moves from job to job, in order to reflect the realities of the construction industry work force.
Successful health care reform for our country should include all available options, including free-market solutions, to allow every citizen the opportunity to receive the health care insurance they need, instead of the result of some eleventh hour backroom deal.
Rebecca Logan is president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors, Alaska Chapter.
By REBECCA LOGAN