The Last Word: Spending the Holidays With Obamacare

By Rick Bell

Nov. 30, 2012

When gas prices spike, taxi companies add a surcharge to your cab ride. If there’s a drought, the price of corn, soybeans and wheat climbs and you, in turn, shell out more for groceries. Are you flying this holiday season? Then you likely will pay that annoying $25 fee for your luggage.

It’s simply the cost of doing business, right?

Why then does such high anxiety set in when business owners say Obamacare is forcing them to raise prices and cut employees’ hours? Does this come as any great surprise?

We have spent a lot of energy lately fretting over restaurant owners’ tacking on a surcharge to your next Grand Slam breakfast. One writer even went to great lengths to break down pizza mogul “Papa” John Schnatter’s Obamacare mathematics. (The writer’s conclusion: Health care reform will actually cost the international pizza chain an extra 3.5 cents per pie, rather than Schnatter’s claim earlier this year of 11 to 14 cents.)

Instead of pitching a fit over a pricier plate of hot wings, let’s turn our focus to what really matters: implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which awaits anxious employers like an early arrival for a New Year’s Eve party.

In this month’s Special Report, which outlines key provisions regarding implementation of health care reform in the coming years, senior writer Rita Pyrillis spells out the ambiguity employers are facing. You can sense the alarm in the comments of one executive who says: “You’re looking into the dark. Before you were staring into confusion. … But now you can’t see where anything is, where the stumbling blocks may be.”

You can argue the politics all you want. You can complain that health care reform is just a bad piece of legislation. And wide-eyed concerns about its vagaries are completely valid.

But there is a large contingent of human resources and benefits managers who face implementation now, during the holiday season no less, and no amount of politicizing health care reform will change that simple fact. They don’t need rhetoric. What they need is upper management’s cooperation and leadership as well as all the available resources at the organization’s disposal to sort through the dizzying maze of complex and, in some cases, ambiguous regulations they now face.

To further muddy implementation, dozens of court challenges lie ahead, including the politically charged regulation requiring employers to extend coverage for prescription contraceptives. One lawsuit by Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. was denied last month, though lawyers representing the arts-and-crafts chain vow to appeal.

Some of the pending regulations had been completed before the Nov. 6 election, but observers contend the administration delayed them to avoid a political hit, such as the guidance on a three-year, $25 billion federal reinsurance program—employers would foot most of the cost—starting in 2014. Not exactly fodder to whip up a crowd along the campaign trail.

If there’s a shining star in the seasonal shift, from political to holiday, it’s the release of health care reform law guidance. That’s got to be some consolation to the people who have to figure out what, when and how to implement the law. At least now there’s something to work with.

Unlike hospitality and retail merchants, the solutions for many employers aren’t as clear cut as tacking on a surcharge or raising the price of a pizza. The holidays are stressful enough, but given the uncertainty of implementation, health care reform could be remembered as the gift that will keep on giving—ulcers.

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

Workforce Management, December 2012, p. 34Subscribe Now!

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. For comments or questions email

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