Health insurance fee isn’t done deal, Ammiano says 

The highly controversial fee that will be imposed on The City’s businesses to help pay for health insurance for all of San Francisco’s uninsured adults, is no longer set in stone, according to the plan’s author.

When the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the Health Access ordinance this summer, the business community strongly opposed the plan since it would force them to pay a per-employee fee — that would cost businesses as much as $33 million annually — to help offset of the health program’s $200 million price tag.

The health ordinance, which was developed by Supervisor Tom Ammiano and Mayor Gavin Newsom, is ready for initial implementation in July 2007. It is designed to provide The City’s more than 80,000 uninsured adults with health coverage.

The program, however, is now being threatened by a lawsuit filed last week by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. The lawsuit contends that a federal law pre-empts the local ordinance.

Ammiano indicated on Wednesday that he was open to the idea of discussing alternatives to the existing funding plan. The health care program requires businesses with 20 employees or more to invest $1.06 to $1.60 for each employee hour worked for health care.

Steve Sarver, owner of the San Francisco Soup Company, asked Ammiano during a lunch meeting Wednesday with local business owners, to consider other alternatives to fund the program. He suggested a cap on the cost per employer. "The $1.60 an hour that my business will pay is about 17 percent of the payroll. And that is a pretty dramatic number," Sarver said.

"Let me give you some hope," Ammiano said. "There is some fluidity" in the plan as discussions begin and The City moves toward implementation, Ammiano said. "It is kind of a living, breathing document and there are all kinds of windows of opportunity," he added.

While Ammiano said there was "hope" for business owners such as Sarver, he did not specify which alternatives he would accept.

Should the Golden Gate Restaurant Association succeed in its lawsuit, then it appears funding for the program would have to be found elsewhere. The lawsuit says the health care ordinance is pre-empted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which sets national standards for employee benefit plans. The federal law prevents states and local governments from dictating specific terms of employee health care benefits.

Business leaders had offered other methods to fund the health program, including a quarter-cent sales tax.

"If the courts go one way, we obviously want to sit down and look at how that health access program really gets implemented next summer," San Francisco Chamber of Commerce spokesman Jim Lazarus said to Ammiano.

jsabatini@examiner.com

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