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As Obamacare's 'Compassionate' Reality Sets In, Companies 'Cruelly' Cut Health Benefits

Employees of shipping giant United Parcel Service recently got an unexpected delivery. The company announced that it would stop offering health coverage to the spouses of 15,000 workers.

UPS’s workers and their families can thank Obamacare for this special delivery. And UPS isn’t alone. American businesses are discovering each and every day that the president’s signature law will raise health costs for them and their employees in short order.

In a memo explaining the decision to employees, UPS stated that increasing medical costs “combined with the costs associated with the Affordable Care Act, have made it increasingly difficult to continue providing the same level of health care benefits to our employees at an affordable cost.”

One day before UPS’s big announcement, the University of Virginia announced that it would cut benefits for spouses who have access to health care through jobs of their own. The rationale was similar.

Delta Airlines recently revealed that Obamacare will directly increase its direct health costs by $38 million next year. After taking into account the indirect costs of the law, the company is looking at a 2014 health bill that’s $100 million higher.

Increasingly, large employers who aren’t dropping spousal health benefits are requiring their employees to pay monthly surcharges in the neighborhood of $100 per spouse.

Many small businesses are dropping family coverage altogether because they expect that Obamacare’s new tax on insurers will be passed on to them in the form of higher premiums. One Colorado-based business received notice from its insurer that the tax would increase premiums more than 20 percent.

The story is similar in Massachusetts. One new report concludes that over 45,000 small businesses in the Bay State will see premium increases in excess of 30 percent. In all, more than 60 percent of firms in the state will see their premiums go up.

Last month in California, the largest insurer for small businesses — Anthem — declared that it would not participate in the state’s small-business health insurance “marketplace,” Covered California. Only two years ago, Anthem covered one-third of small businesses in California.

Anthem’s exit represents one less choice for consumers — and a sign that competition may not be as robust in the exchanges as the Obama Administration promised.

Small businesses are responding to these higher premiums by trimming their labor costs in other ways. That’s not good news for workers.

Seventy-four percent of small employers plan to have fewer staff because of Obamacare, according to a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey. Twenty-seven percent are looking to cut full-time employees’ hours, 24 percent to reduce hiring, and 23 percent to replace full time with part-time employees.

One in four small companies say that Obamacare was the single biggest reason not to hire new workers. For almost half, it’s the biggest business challenge they face.

These findings are consistent with a recent Gallup Poll showing that 41 percent of small businesses have already stopped hiring because of Obamacare. Another 19 percent intend to make job cuts because of the law.

All this tumult in the labor market is fueled by more than the increase in premiums engendered by Obamacare. The law effectively encourages companies to cut full-time jobs.

Obamacare requires employers with 50 or more workers to provide health insurance to all who are on the job for 30 or more hours per week. The law originally called for this “employer mandate” to take effect in 2014, but the Administration decided in July to delay enforcement of the mandate until 2015.

Employers are responding by doing just enough to avoid Obamacare’s dictates.

Administrators at Youngstown State University in Ohio recently told adjunct instructors, “[Y]ou cannot go beyond twenty-nine work hours a week. . . . If you exceed the maximum hours, YSU will not employ you the following year.” A week prior the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh made a similar announcement.

Hundreds of employees at Wendy’s franchises have seen their hours reduced for the same reason.

Meanwhile, companies with fewer than 50 employees are thinking twice about expanding — and thus being ensnared by Obamacare’s requirement that they provide health insurance.

The cost of each additional employee could be staggering. A firm with 51 employees that declined to provide health coverage would face $42,000 in new taxes every year — and an additional $2,000 tax for each new hire. Providing coverage, of course, would be even more expensive.

Meanwhile, as private firms large and small grapple with Obamacare-fueled cost increases, one large employer — the federal government — has been quietly exempting itself from portions of the law.

Top congressional staffers like their current benefits under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP), wherein the government pays up to 75 percent of the premiums.

But the law requires those who work in lawmakers’ personal offices to enter the exchanges. And in many cases, staffers  make too much to qualify for health insurance subsidies through the exchanges. So they’d be facing a hefty cut in their compensation.

Fearing a mass exodus of congressional staffers from Capitol Hill, the Obama Administration fudged the law to permit lawmakers’ employees to receive special taxpayer-funded subsidies of $4,900 per person and $10,000 per family.

Yet only three months ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) claimed that Congress wouldn’t make exceptions for itself.

President Obama no doubt knows that these congressional favors won’t go over well with ordinary Americans. So he’s called on his most popular deputy — former President Bill Clinton — to try to sell the law to the public once again.

But unless the former president can lower employer health costs with little more than the power of his words, his sales pitch will likely fall flat.

This article was first published at Forbes.com.

A Private Sector Healthcare Solution That We Can Smile About

In 2012, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn decided to cut $1.6 billion from the state’s Medicaid program to help get the state’s finances under control. Among the benefits slashed was dental coverage for adults.

The Land of Lincoln was only the latest cash-strapped state to scrap dental coverage under Medicaid, joining the likes of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California, and Washington.

States must do something to prevent Medicaid from taking over their budgets entirely. But these cuts in dental benefits may only deliver temporary fiscal relief — and end up costing states more in the long run.

Fortunately, there’s a way out of this conundrum. It’s called a “dental service organization” (DSO). The Pacific Research Institute recently released a study by Wayne Winegarden and Donna Arduin entitled “The Benefits Created by Dental Service Organizations” that illustrates how dental service organizations are leveraging the power of market competition to deliver dental benefits cost-effectively now — with an eye on avoiding even more expensive dental and medical procedures later.

In most states, low-income Americans have little to no access to dental care. Only about half of state Medicaid programs cover anything beyond treatment of dental pain and emergency room visits for their poor.

In states where Medicaid does cover trips to the dentist, many beneficiaries can’t find a doctor who will see them, thanks to the program’s absurdly low reimbursement rates.

According to a Pew Research Center study, Medicaid pays dentists around 60 cents on the dollar in 26 states. Just one state paid dentists 100 percent of their normal fees, while 14 paid less than half.

As a result, only a third of dentists will treat Medicaid patients. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that in many states, most dentists “treat few or no Medicaid patients.”

So the poor don’t get many check-ups. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, only one-third of poor children saw a dentist in 2008. In contrast, nearly two-thirds of those from high-income families did so. A Pew Center study found that one in five poor children — 17 million in total — go without dental care each year.

This has serious long-term consequences. The GAO found that one in three children had untreated tooth decay — twice the rate of those covered by private insurance — and one in nine had untreated decay in three or more teeth.

“Dental disease remains a significant problem for children aged 2 through 18 in Medicaid,” it concluded.

The Pew study notes that “a ‘simple cavity’ can escalate through their childhoods and well into their adult lives, from missing significant numbers of school days to risk of serious health problems and difficulty finding a job.”

And it’s these significant health problems that can quickly erase any savings a state thinks it generates by eliminating dental coverage under Medicaid.

As the Children’s Dental Health Project explains, when the poor go without routine dental care, they often end up in emergency rooms. A three-year comparison found that treating dental problems in emergency rooms cost 10 times more than preventive treatment provided in a dentist’s office.

States could simply pay dentists more. One study found that dentists’ participation increased by at least a third, and sometimes more than doubled, in states that boosted Medicaid payments.

But the reality is that they can’t afford to do so — as their strained budgets have caused them to cut dental coverage in the first place.

Enter the dental service organization. Starting in the late 1990s, dentists began banding together under dental service organizations, taking advantage of economies of scale in order to cut overhead costs and provide quality service at much lower prices. The dental service organization handles marketing, human resource support, accounting and billing, spreading costs efficiently across several practices.

Today there are more than 3,500 dental service organizations in operation, according to the Dental Group Practice Association. And according to a 2012 study by Laffer Associates, the cost per patient among dental service organizations operating in Texas was almost half that of traditional dental offices — $484, versus $712. At one dental service organization, Kool Smiles, the per-patient cost was just $345.

Because dental service organizations can operate more efficiently than a single dentist office, they can cope with Medicaid’s low reimbursement rates and heavy paperwork requirements, providing care for the poor without losing money on each patient they see.

And they’re starting to make an impact. The Children’s Dental Health Project has found that over the past decade, the share of poor children who’ve seen a dentist has climbed, and it attributed 20 percent of that increase to the expansion of dental service organizations.

Dental service organizations stand out as an excellent example of private-sector innovation that can help solve a serious public health problem — while saving taxpayers money.

That’s something to smile about.