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Health-care reform: The view from K Street

In some regards, the Supreme Court decision of June 28 changed nothing about the politics of Obamacare, say foodservice lobbyists. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act continued creaking forward, towards its rendezvous with 2014, when many employers will have to insure their workers or pay a penalty.

“The process moves forward as it was the day before the Supreme Court decision,” says Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs for the National Restaurant Association. What has changed, he says, is that, “The legal or judicial route is off the table. People have got to turn back to their legislative agendas.”

The industry’s top legislative goal is still to repeal the law. “We want to repeal it in its entirety and replace it with market-based solutions,” says Steve Caldeira, chief executive of the International Franchise Association.

But with a divided Congress and a president who holds a veto pen, repeal is not likely, acknowledge some lobbyists—at least, not until after this November’s election. “The wild card is the presidential election,” says Rob Green, executive director of the National Council of Chain Restaurants. “If we see a change in Congress and the administration, we could still see change in the law.”

So many in Washington are quietly turning their attention to a Plan B: ways to soften the law’s harshest effects on restaurants.

“Our legislative agenda is not just focused on repeal,” says DeFife. “What we’ve said, for the better part of a year, is that if the law cannot be repealed, it must be changed. We’ve brought items to the attention of lawmakers that would change the elements of the employer mandate that we think are most troublesome.”

In recent months, the association has supported several bills to roll back particular provisions of Obamacare:

  • S. 20 and H.R.1744 would repeal the mandate for employers of 50 or more full-time workers to offer insurance or pay a penalty.
  • S. 1880 and H.R. 1370 would block a 2014 tax on health insurers, which might result in higher premiums for small businesses.
  • H.R. 2206 would remove the requirement that businesses with over 200 workers must automatically enroll all full-time workers in company insurance plans.

Meanwhile, outside the halls of Congress, associations are working on a second track: engaging federal regulators. Agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Labor and Internal Revenue Service are still writing regulations to flesh out many of the act’s vague prescriptions. Some key unwritten rules:

  • The definition of full-time versus part-time employees.
  • How to determine a worker’s household income, when premiums can’t exceed 9.5 percent of income.
  • What minimum benefits plans must include to avoid penalties.

Until these regulations come out, restaurants can’t make realistic plans, says Michelle Neblett, the NRA’s director of labor and workforce policy. “It’s hard at this point to be able to calculate what a premium is going to look like. A broker can’t tell you if the plan you’re offering today will meet minimum value standards, because the rules are not written yet.”

Not all the lobbying is going on in Washington. States are charged with designing the exchanges where individuals and small businesses can shop for insurance, and determining what policies can be sold. At the California Restaurant Association, says senior legislative director Matt Sutton, “We’re keeping in contact with the health benefits exchange, to keep a pulse on what they’re doing. We expect more of a role for small employers as it moves forward. We’ll partner at the appropriate time.”

How can individual operators get involved? First, by educating themselves on the law. “We’re doing a lot of webinars,” says Sutton. “We have to prepare our members for it to be implemented, because it is the law of the land.”

Next, by talking and writing to public officials, not just to lawmakers but to rulemakers. “We’ve brought in CEOs to meet with White House and regulatory officials,” says Green, “The best way to approach this is to have company executives and operators come to Washington to tell their stories.”

DeFife agrees, “They need to be talking to their legislators every chance they get, about the real-time impact of this law on them and the decisions they’re having to make, from a business standpoint.”

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