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U.S. health underwriters channel Chicken Little

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WASHINGTON -- Nine months and cringing from the full implementation of Obamacare, what are we hearing at the morning session of the annual conference of the National Association of Health Underwriters?

"The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Really! Really!" Speaker A is crying.

"It will be a huge burden, almost a perfect storm. The clock is ticking and we're in for a world of hurt," Speaker B is predicting.

"There is a bewilderment," Speaker C is understating.

The morning session has opened with an agent from Alabama playing the national anthem on a silver cornet, but he might as well have been the Archangel Gabriel announcing the end of the world.

For these small to medium businesspeople from across the United States, New Year's Day 2014 looms like a hailstorm of transformation, resignation, confusion, and -- on this they all agree -- much, much, much higher premiums for employers, families, and working folks. Nobody here is trumpeting Hail to the Chief.

"We're going to see rates really go through the roof," Speaker A, who is a woman named Katie Mahoney from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, prophesies.

"The law did nothing on controlling costs," Mahoney fumes. "People are really up in arms that Obamacare is going to take away any personal responsibility for their own personal wellness."

There are 850 underwriters in the room: Record-smashing attendance for a NAHU convocation. These are the brokers who tailor insurance plans for employers and individuals, or at least they did until the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 turned their world upside-down.

So far, the governors of 26 states -- including just a fistful of Republicans -- have agreed to join a national "exchange" that will offer basic health insurance to anyone who is not covered at work, by the Medicare plan for seniors, or by welfare programs for the poor. States that do not cannonball into the national pool will be compelled to establish their own exchanges. The Chamber of Commerce still is gamely lobbying for repeal, but even Katie Mahoney accepts that the plight of more than 50 million uninsured Americans carries "a cost to our country -- financially, emotionally, and humanely."

Anyway, notes Speaker C, John Arensmeyer of a group that calls itself the Small Business Majority, "There is zero per cent chance that anything will happen legislatively on health care this year."

But what will happen -- beginning in January -- is that every company with more than 50 employees will have to decide whether it makes better sense to maintain a corporate group insurance plan, or pay a fine of $2,000 per full-time worker and let the hirelings fend for themselves on the state or national exchange.

"What we see is that the mandate kicks in, and small businesses are closing their doors," Speaker A says. "And what about people who say, I don't need insurance. How do I get another five dollars in my pocket to pay for food?"

"How do you grapple with retention?" Mahoney goes on. "How do you keep your best people? How do you stay open? How do you comply with the law? How do we pull out of the recession and give people jobs?"

"We have a lot of questions and we don't know how to answer them," admits Speaker B, Christine Pollack from the Retail Leaders Industry Association, which represents some of the country's largest supermarkets, department and discount stores. "Obamacare will be the biggest game-changer in the business world. Our costs are going to go way up, but we only have certain flexibility to raise the price of milk."

"Our challenge," Pollack continues, "is raising the knowledge level of the average American who thinks that health care is a right and it should be free and they should not have to pay a dollar for health care."

I sidle up to one of the attendees, a woman named Joni Reents who runs a one-person agency in the suburbs of Denver, Colo.

"A lot of people have been telling me, I'll be happy when Obamacare kicks in," Reents smiles. "I say, 'Really?' "

Reents says that she has about 400 clients, but that she has given up the plans she once had to expand her little business.

"Most of my clients think that rates are going to go down," she tells me. "Well, they're not. People are saying, 'Well, I might as well drop my plan and self-insure.' Not if you have a heart attack. Not if you have cancer."

Back on the rostrum, defiance is melding into grudging acceptance that the Supreme Court has spoken, the president has been re-elected and Obamacare is coming to town a week after Santa Claus flies out.

"We're close enough now that we need to run the experiment," shrugs Speaker C, who then gives way for the association's outgoing president.

This is a Californian named Bruce Benton who chokes up when he praises the membership of the National Association of Health Underwriters as honest agents "doing God's work" for "real, live people."

"We've been told for 30 years that the sky is falling, and it hasn't, 'cause we're still here," the outgoing president is saying. "Let's all take a deep breath."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 J6

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