Small business reality check on Affordable Care Act: it’s here to stay… and that’s a darn good thing

When my wife and I opened our auto repair shop 30 years ago, we made the commitment to offer health insurance. We're in a high-skill field where being able to offer good benefits to keep good people is important. We wouldn’t want our best customers to even think of going anywhere else… and the same holds true for our staff.

That decision has certainly paid off in terms of employee loyalty: the average tenure for our full-time staff is now almost 20 years. And I’m proud that we, as a small business with about a dozen employees, are doing our part to make sure our staff is covered. But it hasn’t been easy.

Before the Affordable Care Act, our experience with health care costs was a lot like the proverbial frog in the pot of cold water gradually heated: we were getting cooked. Maybe slowly, but cooked nonetheless.

Add up the year-over-year increases, and our costs doubled from 2000 to 2009. In 2009, our health insurance costs for our nine full-time employees and their families topped $100,000. That was more than 20 percent of our payroll. This explosion in our health care costs far exceeded increases for any other business cost.

Now, we’ve all been hearing lobbyists claiming left and right that the Affordable Care Act would drive premiums up even further. Well, let this auto mechanic be the first to tell you: that claim doesn’t pass inspection.

Fact is, in my business we’ve already seen a reversal of the skyrocketing rates we absorbed from 2000-2010. In 2011, for the first time in my memory, our health insurance premiums actually went down, and by over 3 percent. A fluke? Dumb luck? I don’t think so: when 2012 rolled around, our premiums went down another 3 percent.

In Oregon, where I have my business, 22 different insurance carriers have applied to and been accepted by Cover Oregon (the name of our state’s health insurance marketplace). Many of these carriers have already lowered their premium requests to match the competition created in this new transparent marketplace.

I’m proud that Oregon is setting an example for how the Affordable Care Act can help small businesses afford quality health coverage – when you take it seriously instead of playing politics with it.

And the new Cover Oregon marketplace is just one of the benefits coming for small businesses. We’re already seeing other provisions of the Affordable Care Act deliver on the promise of lowering health care costs.

Rate review rules are giving states new tools to protect small businesses from unreasonable rate increases. United HealthCare customers in Oregon saved $274 per person when our state’s insurance commission knocked back their 16.8 percent proposed increase to 10 percent.

The ACA’s “80/20 Rule” is ensuring that small businesses get real value for our premium dollars. Requiring insurers to issue rebate checks when they fail to spend at least 80 percent of premiums on medical care has put billions of dollars back in consumers’ pockets nationwide through either lower premiums or rebates. Just across the Columbia River from my business, in Clark County, Washington, Regence returned an average of $499 per rate payer.

Thanks to the law’s small business health care tax credit, our business received a credit of $12,903. And, running a family business, the ACA has also allowed our 25-year-old daughter to rejoin our plan, sharing risk over a larger, healthier pool of enrollees.

Here’s the bottom line: the Affordable Care Act has been like a time machine for our small business. Premium decreases, combined with ACA’s small business tax credit, have rolled our health insurance costs back to what we were paying in 2007. And, health insurance pricing certainty has now enabled us to add two more full-time employees (including a veteran of the war in Afghanistan). We’re a health care success story.

If Congress wants more small business success stories like mine, it should build on the ACA by doing things like expand the small business tax credit so more businesses can benefit.

What it shouldn’t do is waste any more time on grandstanding repeal votes. The ACA is here to stay. And for small businesses like mine, that’s a darn good thing.

Jim Houser is an ASE Certified Master Automotive Technician and co-owner of Hawthorne Auto Clinic in Portland, Oregon. He is co-chair of the Main Street Alliance of Oregon, a statewide network of local, independent small businesses. He also serves on the Consumer Advisory Committee to Cover Oregon, Oregon’s new health insurance marketplace.