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Health care plan spooks entrepreneur

William Baldwin works 70 hours a week. He often arrives at work before the sun rises; frequently, he doesn't make it home for three straight nights.

Why?

Because he can't afford to employ anyone else to work for him at his Sunrise Printing. The costs of buying health insurance, he says, are just too high.

"I can't pay insurance for another employee, so I don't hire anyone else," Baldwin said. "I see it as a responsibility of the employer to the employee. I wish I had one."

White House officials say their national health plan is aimed at people just like Baldwin.

But Baldwin still has concerns about the plan, which has become the Clinton administration's highest long-term priority. "I don't think any government-mandated health plan is going to be helpful," he said. "I don't think government mandates are good for anything, let alone health care."

The Clinton administration, in developing its health plan, must deal with the fears of Baldwin and many other small-business owners who believe any requirements placed on employers could prevent them from hiring new employees or even force them to lay off some workers. Some are predicting a 7 or 8 percent payroll tax, which they say is too high.

Administration officials, who prefer to call the tax a payroll premium, insist it won't cripple businesses because the payments would replace the costs employers currently pay for health care.

Whatever type of assessment is imposed _ whether a per-person premium as it is now or a payroll tax _ is expected to be far lower for small businesses than for large ones. The administration also is expected to gradually phase in the plan to reduce fiscal pain.

The major benefit the health plan would have for Baldwin is the security of knowing his insurance couldn't be canceled or priced out of reach if he or a family member gets sick. The health plan also is expected to do away with workers' compensation premiums, which _ if Sunrise had additional employees _ would cost Baldwin more than $1,000 a person under the present system.

"Mr. Baldwin is exactly the kind of guy the Clinton plan is meant to help the most _ he wants to insure but just can't afford it," said Kevin Anderson, a spokesman for the Alliance for Health Reform in Washington, a non-profit group interested in promoting universal health care and cost control.

A Clinton plan probably would give Baldwin the flexibility to hire another employee and insure him at little or no cost, Anderson said. White House officials are considering a policy that would treat employees of all businesses with less than five workers as if they were self-employed, he added. Such employees would get full coverage with part of the cost subsidized by the government. The employees would pay the rest of the premiums themselves.

"In that case, Baldwin wouldn't have to make any contribution" except to make payroll deduction available for the employee to pay for coverage, Anderson said. "His new employee could get coverage for relative pocket change."

Baldwin, 40, has a policy with American Medical Security that covers most major medical needs for himself, his wife and four children, ages 10, 13, 17 and 18.

His business, which contracts offset printing for other companies, barely pays the bills, but Baldwin realizes the need to have his family covered. His partner, Bill Sterrett, the company's second employee and a retiree, isn't covered by Sunrise's policy because he qualifies for Medicare.

Baldwin's health plan costs $260 a month with a $500 deductible and covers visits to the doctor and mental health care. For the doctor's office visits, Baldwin pays a maximum of $15 while insurance handles the rest.

The policy also pays 80 percent of the cost of hospital care, but doesn't cover the costs of prescriptions, dental care and eye care.

"For the cost, I think it's a great package," he said, adding he gets frequent offers from other insurance companies. Some have cheaper monthly fees, but all have larger deductibles.

Anderson said the Clinton plan likely will give Baldwin a more affordable, secure policy.

"(The cost) tells me they all must be healthy as horses _ and that that coverage would very likely skyrocket or disappear altogether if anyone developed a chronic condition," he said.

When he first opened Sunrise Printing three years ago, Baldwin didn't purchase a health insurance policy. He and his family were covered for the first year by his secondary job at a credit union.

The entrepreneur left the credit union in 1991 to devote all his time to Sunrise, but couldn't afford a health plan. It was a risk he says he was forced to take.

Baldwin was lucky, and he knows it. Any major medical needs could have devastated his bank account and his business.

"I didn't feel good about it," he said, "but there was no way I could afford buying (insurance) at the time."

He longs for the day he can pay to insure some employees: "How long can I hold out on my own?"

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