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Businesses Far From Unified Against Health-Care Reform

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2009

Even as the national business lobby ramps up its opposition to health-care reform, there are signs that employers around the country are divided on the issue, reducing the force of an opposition push.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched an ad campaign this week, with its lobbyist R. Bruce Josten warning that Democratic bills would "take us to a government takeover of the health-care system."

Wal-Mart, on the other hand, recently came out in support of a mandate on employers to provide health insurance, and the temp firm Kelly Services, which employs thousands, followed with a similar statement.

Less noted has been the diversity of opinion among small and medium-size businesses. Many agree with the Chamber that a public insurance option would undermine the private insurance market and that requiring companies to provide coverage would impair job growth. Others say the current system is so broken that they are assessing whether to support the reform plans.

The wait-and-see approach that many businesses are taking -- alternately skeptical and hopeful -- is a further sign that the alliances that previously scuttled health-care reform may be scrambled this time around, not just in the health-care industry but also in the business world at large. President Obama and congressional Democrats face formidable obstacles to their reform efforts, but one factor in their favor is businesspeople who may not be as inclined as they were in the past to bring grass-roots pressure against reform.

While the business lobby warns of the devastation of the employer-based insurance system that now covers 177 million Americans, some businesspeople say it would not be so bad if insurance became less tied to the workplace. Others envision a system in which health premiums increase at a more reasonable pace.

Take the board of directors of the state Chamber of Commerce in Maine, a state whose moderate Republican senators are key to the health reform outcome, and one of five states where the U.S. Chamber is running print ads; the others are Arkansas, North Carolina, Colorado and Louisiana. Board members expressed varying degrees of support for the reform proposals and said there has been no effort by the Maine Chamber to lobby in opposition.

Mitchell Sammons, an executive at Sheridan Corp., a Maine building contractor, said that health premiums for the company's 90 employees have been rising and that a public option would bring needed competition to Maine, where the private insurance market is dominated by one or two companies.

Sammons, a Republican, dismissed worries that a public option would drive private insurers out of business. "They always find a way to make a buck," he said.

Jim Conlon, president of Bangor Savings Bank, said premiums are becoming harder to afford for the lower-salaried people in his 650-person workforce, such as "the teller whose husband's a fisherman." He likes the idea of a new insurance exchange that would draw more insurers into the market.

"If there's a bigger playing field with more competition . . . then that's a home run," he said.

John Oliver, vice president of public affairs for L.L. Bean, based in Freeport, Maine, said that the employer mandate is a "concept we do have openness to" and that a well-structured public option is a "reasonable goal."

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