Health care uncertainty a challenge at Hall Chamber seminar

Months ago, Rob and Brett Fowler started trying to wrap up plans for the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s Health Care Reform Seminar.

It was no easy task. Up until a few weeks ago, Congress was fighting over the future of the Affordable Care Act — or lack thereof.

“We were trying to outline what would people want to hear,” said Brett Fowler of his and his father’s efforts. “We left some gaps in the (program) for as long as possible so that if something happened, that could be covered.”

As it turned out, nothing happened, as congressional Republicans’ drive to repeal and replace “Obamacare” collapsed.

“We should be good now,” Brett said with a grin, referring to the program’s lineup.

The seminar, which regularly draws a large crowd, is set for Aug. 31 at Brenau Downtown Center Theater in Gainesville. As of Thursday, 125 people had registered for the event.

It’s aimed mainly at businesses and how they should respond to ACA, but there’s usually a healthy dose of information for consumers and political observers.

The state of the ACA insurance marketplace and projected premium increases are usually hot topics. That should be the case again this year, particularly as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia Healthcare Plan announced earlier this month that policies wouldn’t be offered through the exchange or individually. Those with employer-sponsored coverage won’t be affected.

Presenters also don’t typically shy away from political topics, such as where the law may be headed in Congress.

The presidential election was discussed at last year’s seminar, with James Slotnick, assistant vice president with Sun Life Financial, predicting Americans might not see much change in health care reform regardless of who was elected.

The government “may make small tweaks but not a major overhaul,” he said.

Turns out Slotnick was pretty much on target.

Brett Fowler, whose insurance firm, Turner, Wood & Smith Insurance, is one of the seminar’s sponsors, affirmed as much during a recent interview at his office in Gainesville. He mentioned a moment at a conference he attended where someone asked Janet Trautwein, executive vice president and CEO of the National Association of Health Underwriters, “Are we past fixing anything for 2018?”

Her answer was “yes,” Fowler said.

Even if a change in the law were proposed now, insurance companies wouldn’t have the time to “react to it and build (their) plans,” he said.

“They’re already filing their rates (for 2018),” Fowler said. “… An overhaul is out of the question at this point.”

Open enrollment is just around the corner for many workers — such as teachers and state employees — and set for Nov. 1-Dec. 15 in the insurance marketplace.

Rob Fowler, Turner, Wood & Smith Insurance’s executive vice president, further cited Trautwein, who believes “there’s going to be an opportunity for bipartisan look at individual things.”

That could include raising the number of hours an employee must work to be considered full time under the law’s “employer mandate” provision. The mandate requires that businesses with 50 or more employees must offer health insurance to 95 percent of their full-time employees or be subject to penalties.

“The compromise could be 35, 36 (hours) — somewhere in the middle,” Brett Fowler said.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said by phone last week he believes “there’s still a lot of Republicans who want to work on health care.

“I think the failure of the Senate to even pass something that could go to (a House-Senate committee) a few weeks back was not, frankly, any kind of heroic moment. It was a failure … to continue the process.”

He still hopes the joint committee could receive legislation, but “the likelihood of that is not as high as it was a few weeks ago.”

Collins said he believes health care reform could return as an issue in September, possibly connected to spending, as the federal fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

“The frustrating part for many of us is … (ACA) is a failed system,” Collins said. “Every year, when the chamber (of commerce) and others talk about it, (the focus is) really about how do you adapt to a system that is broken.”

Collins’ strong views aren’t universally embraced in his otherwise largely conservative district. Many Democrats and others shouted Collins down in an Aug. 9 town hall, calling for single-payer health care and federal investigations into pharmaceutical companies.

As the law is mostly unchanging at this point, the chamber’s forum will focus on ACA compliance and how businesses should prepare for an audit. A panel discussion will feature Jen Del Noro, a U.S. Department of Labor auditor.

The Labor Department typically looks at businesses “they’re getting complaints on,” Rob Fowler said.

“It’ll be interesting to hear from (Del Nero) on what they look for and what their expectations are,” he said.

The seminar’s featured speaker is John Montgomery, president and medical officer for Humana Florida/Georgia Commercial Markets.

He will speak on “how employers can best support a healthy employee population,” a chamber news release states. “As a nationally recognized physician leader and executive from Jacksonville, Fla., Dr. Montgomery brings years of experience linking health plans and providers with patient-centered strategies,” according to the chamber.

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