Scores of North Coast small business owners and nonprofit managers attended a health care forum Friday in Santa Rosa, hoping for a clearer glimpse of the future promised under Obamacare.
The forum was hosted by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Santa Rosa, and featured Herb Schultz, regional director of U.S. Health and Human Services, the federal agency in charge of implementing President Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Schultz said Obamacare will simplify the process of buying health insurance and create tax incentives for small businesses to contribute to employee health insurance plans.
These incentives, he said, already allow eligible small businesses to receive a tax credit equal to 35 percent of their contribution to their employees' health insurance plans — up to 25 percent for nonprofits. Beginning in 2014, the tax credit will increase, equaling up to 50 percent of employers' contributions, or up to 35 percent for nonprofits.
Most large employers, at least 96 percent, already provide health insurance to their employees, Schultz said. Only a small percent will be subject to the so-called employer mandate, he said.
These employers, with 50 or more employees, will be subject to fines if they choose not to provide insurance. This requirement, which was to begin next year, has been delayed until 2015.
Small businesses — those with fewer than 50 employees — will not be subject to the employer mandate, but they'll be encouraged to do so through the temporary tax credits.
Schultz said that a new "marketplace" for health insurance is being created by Obamacare's health exchanges like the one in California, called Covered California. Health plans sold through the exchange are required to offer a baseline of coverage, including ambulatory, emergency room, maternity, rehabilitation, laboratory preventative medical, and pediatric dental services.
Kerry Burrows, the owner of Napa dog walking business Walkies, said she is eagerly waiting open enrollment to begin for Covered California on Oct. 1.
Burrows, a native of Great Britain who has lived in the United States for 10 years, said she is still unable to "wrap my head around" America's health care and retirement crises.
She pays for her own health insurance and was recently able to find a better deal through a new online service that gave her different options for coverage.
"I was able to get my premiums down $100," she said, adding that her annual deductible was reduced from $5,000 to $3,000 and her co-pays were reduced as well.
Mark Quinn, district director of the U.S. Small Business Administration, said the state is well ahead of the curve in its implementation of Obamacare, with an "accelerated" launch of its health exchange. The agency is assisting federal Health and Human Services do outreach and education about the Affordable Care Act.
Thompson said he would host more town hall meetings later in the summer, in advance of Covered California's October open enrollment date.