AARP wants small businesses included in Catamount Health

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(Host) AARP Vermont says it will use its political muscle to work for an expansion of the state’s Catamount Health program.

The group, which represents older Americans, wants Vermont’s small businesses to be able to enroll in Catamount.

A new survey released by AARP shows that roughly 40% of Vermont’s small businesses don’t offer private health insurance to their employees because it’s too expensive.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) Don Bara owns a small dry-cleaning store in Rutland with his wife Andrea. They paid $12,000 a year for a joint health care policy that included a $3,500 deductible.

Last fall, Bara had some serious health problems that left him with $5,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.

He says the rising cost of health insurance is a major problem for many small businesses.

(Bara) “In fact we couldn’t afford it for all our employees and we have tried on several occasions. And this is a Mom and Pop organization, a dry cleaner’s, and we have four employees in addition to ourselves, and it was unaffordable."

(Kinzel) Bara says he applied for Catamount Health Care coverage but soon found out that he and his wife wouldn’t be eligible for 12 months because of a mandated waiting period.

(Bara) “What netted out was that I would have to be uninsured for a year and, yes, I could then apply for Catamount. And at my age, 63, that’s not a prudent decision to make."

(Kinzel) Former state Senator Jim Leddy is now president of AARP in Vermont – a group that has over 128,000 members in the state.

He wants to help mobilize small businesses like the Baras’ to encourage the Legislature to expand Catamount Health.

Leddy is concerned that the state’s uninsured population will continue to grow if lawmakers don’t address this issue.

(Leddy) “You really have a situation where you’re going to end up with more and more people without insurance. And so by offering access to an affordable plan, I think you both broaden the opportunities for businesses. But you also begin to forestall rates of people losing insurance increasing and you also involve the employers in sharing the costs of health insurance."

(Kinzel) Susan Besio is the director of health care reform in the Douglas administration.  She says there are some serious financial problems with any proposal to expand Catamount.

(Besio) “One of the ways that we kept costs down in the Catamount plan was to reimburse the providers at a much lower rate than they get for commercial insurance. And so one of the big concerns from the provider community is if Catamount is expanded very broadly that all of the providers will be reimbursed much less than they would if people had traditional commercial insurance. So I think that that’s a big limitation to that proposal."

(Kinzel) Besio says she does expect that this issue will be a key concern for lawmakers during the 2009 session.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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