Healthcare in America: Small businesses prepare for open enrollment in Affordable Care Act

They tell you not to sweat the small stuff.

So, what to do about a looming federal health care deadline? Open enrollment in the newly formed health insurance marketplace begins Tuesday, October 1, 2013, essentially one business day away for Gregg Caldwell.

"Just don't make my job harder," said Caldwell, who, along with his wife, put the initials in C&G Tire and Auto Service in Chantilly 18 years ago.

"We're feeling some confusion and nervousness. My wife spends hours on the paperwork. I don't want to alter my business around health insurance," said Caldwell.

Caldwell offers health insurance to his employees now, seeing it as a retention tool. And 96% of businesses won't have to change their current policies if they don't want to. But they may very well want to.

"For the first time, this marketplace will transform how small businesses can purchase health care. They can band together and get the same benefits that big businesses enjoy today," said John Arensmeyer, CEO of the non-profit advocacy group, Small Business Majority which connects 20,000 small business owners across the country, 4,400 of them in DC, Maryland, and Virginia.

Arensmeyer points out, traditionally, businesses with fewer than 50 employees pay 18-percent more than big corporations. The hope is that greater participation in health care will mean lower costs for everyone.

Robert Kessler, president of Systems Furniture Gallery in Chantilly, is counting on a more affordable system.

"For years as a small company, we got nailed with rate increases -- 10, 20, 30 percent," said Kessler.

Like Caldwell, Kessler is uncomfortable with the uncertainty.

"Is my current plan good, or will the new plan be better? We're in limbo," said Caldwell.

Not Marla Gebaide, owner of the Centreville Chiropractic Center.

"People are scared of change. I choose the path of, if it's happening, why fear that?"

Many business owners in the Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce network like Gebaide, Kessler, and Caldwell are relying on insurance brokers to navigate the uncharted waters of health care reform.

"They decided to become really informed. When you are informed you have no fear. And that information is power," said Gebaide.

For small business owners who have the time to do the work themselves, spells out simply how to proceed, especially in its SHOP section, short for Small Business Health Options Program. The government promotes SHOP as a way for owners to control the coverage and deductible amount, compare plans on-line, and see if they qualify for a health care tax credit.

"We like to say there's more heat than light shown on this issue," said Arensmeyer, who embraces the Affordable Care Act as a new, fresh way to get escalating costs under control.

Arensmeyer's also gives free advice on public policy issues from health care to the possiblity of a government shutdown. On Friday, it launched a "Stop the Shutdown" sign-on letter, arguing the country's 28 million small businesses can't afford more economic instability, especially in and around Washington where the government is the largest, and to date, most reliable employer.

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