KNAU and Arizona News
11:03 am
Wed October 14, 2009

Flagstaff Businesses Make Difficult Health Care Decisions

Flagstaff, AZ – Small businesses provide jobs for the majority of working Americans, but not all of them provide health insurance to their employees. About 6 in 10 do provide insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In Flagstaff, two small businesses have made different decisions regarding health insurance.

On the east side of Flagstaff, just south of the railroad tracks, there's a small factory that makes concrete blocks and sells them to masons and landscapers. Nancy Ross and her husband had 20 employees when they bought Block Lite in 1995. After the recent boom and bust of the construction industry, they're down to 13. Recently, they let the employees decide whether to reduce their hours or face lay offs.

"I'm proud of them," she says. "They all voted to cut their hours even though some of them knew it wouldn't affect their hours because of seniority. So I'm very impressed."

Nancy says her employees are like family. She and her husband have provided health insurance for them since they opened.

"To me it's not an option," Ross says. "It's just something we have to do. We feel like we have to take care of them. And one medical bill, they could lose everything they have and that would break me and my husband's heart."

It costs the Rosses $80,000 a year to insure their employees. They're not expecting to make a profit this year so this will be the first time in 14 years no one will get a raise. Nancy says it doesn't have anything to do with rising insurance premiums.

Ross is concerned about a public insurance plan offered by the federal government that would compete with private insurance companies.

Even though she doesn't see health insurance as optional for her employees, she doesn't think it should be mandated.

"By us doing it, that's a benefit that we give our employees," she says. "It attracts them. If we're all on the same playing field, how do you attract employees to come to you?"

Some employers, like Ed and Betty Goodwin, say they just get lucky. The Goodwins run the Printing Raven on the west side of town.

The Goodwins, who have been in business for four years, would like to offer health insurance. But they say it's just too expensive.

Betty Goodwin says she feels grateful she had insurance when she battled breast cancer a few years ago.

"All the medical tests, the surgery, the follow up, the radiation, everything else I went through, everything was covered," she says. "I didn't pay a penny for any of it. I want to be able to offer that to my employees where, heaven forbid, anything should happen to them, they'll be able to go to their doctor without thinking 'How the heck am I going to pay for this?'"

Goodwin's employee, Lee Lansing, says this is the first time in her life she hasn't had insurance.

"It's very uncomfortable not having insurance," Lansing says. "I feel insecure at times. There are things I don't do anymore. I rarely mountain bike anymore."

She says most of the jobs she applied for didn't offer health insurance so it wasn't an option. In this economy, employers can attract quality workers without offering health benefits.

Lansing isn't too concerned about the big debate in Washington. She says by the time they finalize a bill, she'll be eligible for Medicare.

Goodwin, on the other hand, is worried an employer mandate may force some businesses to downsize or worse.

"It scares us that it would come down to 'you will have to do it' and 'it will have to be at this level' and 'you will pay this much,'" Goodwin says. "Health care for all sounds wonderful. It's the execution and where's that money going to come from that scares the bejesus out of me."

But Eric Henley, medical director for North Country Community HealthCare, says she shouldn't worry.

The various health care bills taking shape in Congress would only require employers who have 25 or more workers, or a payroll that exceeds $250,000, to provide insurance. So Betty's company, which has five employees, would be exempt from a mandate.

"While we don't know what the final bill will be, most of the versions of the health care reform bills out there I think will help most small businessmen provide insurance for their employees," says Henley. "Some might feel overburdened by the requirements of the employer mandates. Many will actually find insurance made more affordable."

Betty Goodwin is hoping that's the case. She and her husband have made it a long term goal to offer insurance to her employees.