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Time for a Health Care Reform Checkup
 

By Steve Bates  6/27/2010


SAN  DIEGO—Even though many provisions of the landmark U.S. health care reform law don’t take effect until 2014 or later, HR professionals need to study the law and its impact on their organizations now and throughout this decade, they were told June 27 at the first of six sessions on the subject at SHRM’s 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition here.

“If you haven’t started talking about it, you need to start talking about it,” remarked presenter Michael P. Aitken, SHRM’s director of government affairs, in a session titled “Health Care Reform & HR: One ‘Check Up’ You Shouldn’t Miss.”

Many of the decisions that employers will be forced to make in a few years—such as whether to offer health coverage to employees or pay a fine—will be influenced by decisions made before then on a number of issues, such as whether to change insurers and whether to pass on more costs to employees, said Aitken.

“Don’t think of these things as a single rifle shot,” he advised. “It’s not just the out years like 2014, when the ‘Cadillac’ tax [on high-value health plans] takes effect. “You’ve got to look at those implications now.”

He noted that when he considers the most significant laws enacted in the U.S. in the past 50 years, “I can’t think of one that is bigger than this in terms of its impact on HR. … It might be a wise investment right now to sit down and do some modeling” to help anticipate what changes might put the organization in the best position to weather the storm of reform.

“You don’t want to be rushing around at the last minute making these changes,” he said.

Aitken said recent SHRM and Gallup polls showed that HR will need to play a big role in communicating to employees and to senior management about the impact of the legislation and subsequent regulations. “People don’t know what’s in this bill. … We’re still finding things.” Added Aitken: “Your employees are just as curious about this as you are.”

And to prove him right, attendees at Sunday’s session peppered Aitken with questions about the law—demonstrating their commitment to staying on top of the issues. Will the requirement to report the value of health plans on W2 forms lead to a new tax? If I change providers, will my plan lose its “grandfathered” status? How does the law affect expatriate employees?

“You’re asking very practical and very good, solid questions,” some of which will require discussion with federal regulators. Aitken cautioned that some aspects of reform remain fluid:  More regulations are being developed, and Congress will be making technical corrections to the law. But it likely won’t be repealed because of the large number of votes it takes to override a presidential veto.

Aitken reminded attendees that although a mandate taking effect in 2014 requires that employers offer coverage or pay a fine, it does not require that employers pay for the coverage. And he said that there are some questions about the law that no one can answer yet, such as the effective date of the provision requiring that nursing mothers be given special rooms, and whether they should be paid for time nursing.

Aitken noted the many resources SHRM offers to help HR professionals learn about the law, including a special web page (www.shrm.org/healthcare) and interactive timeline detailing highlights of the law. “You’re going to be spending a lot of time on this in the next five years,” he concluded.

Steve Bates is manager of online editorial content for SHRM.

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