The Last Word: Health Care Reform’s Hurry-Up Is Just Beginning

By Rick Bell

Jun. 28, 2012

Anticipation surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision on health care reform has kept HR executives in a frustrating state of suspended animation for much of the year.

So I figured that on the cusp of the high court’s ruling, health care reform would be the overwhelming topic of discussion once I was among the 12,000 or so attendees at the Society for Human Resource Management’s confab in late June.

But I didn’t think I’d be chatting about it before I hit the 64th annual soiree in Atlanta.

No sooner did I get on the plane in Chicago that I met an HR director from a 400-employee specialty hospital in Omaha, Nebraska, who also was headed to the conference. It took no time to realize our expectations paralleled each other’s: She wanted to learn about health care reform, and I wanted to cover the anticipation and detail the collective HR world’s reaction to the court’s ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

As it turned out, we were not alone in the search for a guiding light to illuminate our path to health care reform enlightenment. At the baggage carousel I overheard two other people talking about the pending ruling. I guessed they were SHRM attendees. They concluded their discussion with one woman turning to the other, uttering an exasperated sigh, “I just wish they’d get it over with.”

Well, they were expected to—the day after the conference ended. Once it was apparent early into SHRM’s first full day on June 25 that a ruling wouldn’t be handed down until June 28, several sessions on health care reform—which not surprisingly were packed to the gills—buzzed with tweets and talk about the delay.

Those justices sure know how to build the suspense.

Call it what you want: impatient anticipation, anxious annoyance, eager hope for the future or outright dreaded fear of the unknown, but health care reform is the gift that indeed will keep on giving. To say health care reform is landmark, game-changing legislation that alters the way HR departments implement benefits is an understatement. Not only was the HR director I met seeking some measure of clarity on how she and her staff would implement it for hospital employees, but also she knew health care reform would alter her field in general.

In the six years I’ve been at Workforce Management, I cannot recall an issue that created the angst and heartburn that health care reform has stirred up for HR practitioners.

Still, there’s a familiar feel to the furor facing the profession. Shake-ups around people management aren’t new—something I’m especially aware of as Workforce Management celebrates its 90th year of publishing. Once again, we are writing about something that measurably reshapes the responsibilities of HR departments across the board.

As I spent two days late last year reading over the archives of Workforce Management and its predecessor, Personnel Journal, what struck me most was no matter how much it seems the role of HR leaders has changed throughout the years, the more it remains the same.

Whether it was 1946 or 1996, it seemed issues that are bandied about today were the same basic concerns of personnel managers and HR executives throughout the past 90 years.

Issues such as employee engagement, managing problem workers and coping with unions has been keeping HR managers reaching for the Bromo-Seltzer for decades.

Perhaps most important, HR people have tussled with legal compliance. The implications of 1938’s Fair Labor Standards Act and 1964’s Title VII continue to reverberate today.

Health care reform will likely be no different. Whatever the nuances of the Affordable Care Act ultimately may be, HR departments and benefits managers will be on the front lines of corporate compliance and implementation.

With benefits enrollment season approaching, HR directors like my new acquaintance from Omaha will be understandably busy. Our state of suspended animation around health care reform has now expired, and a new frustration around having to move fast is just beginning.

Rick Bell is Workforce Management’s managing editor. Comment below or email

Workforce Management, July 2012, p. 58Subscribe Now!

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director.

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