S. Fla. companies consider health care cost strategies

Sun SentinelFebruary 6, 2013 

South Florida businesses are busy hiring advisers, hearing from experts and crunching numbers to analyze the looming costs of health insurance reform.

"Employers are looking at what is the most cost-efficient way for people to work: full-time or part-time," said Ryan Shea, president of the Human Resource Association of Broward County. "Companies are happy to provide competitive benefits but they're looking at what each person is contributing to the bottom line."

The state faces a decision about its coverage for part-time workers, for example. Florida has 2,000 employees who work 30 hours a week, which are considered "full-time equivalents" under the Affordable Care Act. Another 4,700 "part-timers" work at Florida's public universities.

To provide the health insurance currently offered to full-time workers, Florida will have an estimated $24 million hike in health insurance costs, according to Barbara Crosier, director of the Division of State Group Insurance. If the legislature doesn't take action to cover them, the state risks $300 million in fines, she said.

Local businesses with 50 or more full-time equivalent employees will have to provide health insurance coverage in 2014. Those that don't comply will have to pay a $2,000 fine per employee.

Most businesses will comply, said Rafael Cruz, executive director of the Small Business Development Center in Broward County. "You hear all kinds of wild stuff. But business people tend to be very practical," he said.

"I've never met a business person who decided their business strategy based on their healthcare benefits...You can't run your business like that. This is a cost-of-doing business question," Cruz said.

But will some business owners intentionally keep their full-time employee count below 50, even as they could add jobs?

Callan Carter, a partner with Fisher & Phillips law firm who recently made a health insurance reform presentation to the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, said she knows of at least one business making plans to divide into four firms, each with fewer than 50 employees.

For some companies with between 50 and 100 employees, "it might be cheaper for them to pay the fine because they get the first 30 1/8full-time equivalents3/8 for free," she said.

Other employers may reduce part-time workers' hours.

Miami-Dade College recently reminded its 2,500 part-time employees they are limited to working 25 hours a week. Some had been working 30 hours a week during peak enrollment periods, said spokesman Juan Mendieta.

Still, business advisors say there are other factors to consider: the level of employees to properly service their customers, attracting and retaining workers, and growing their business for the future.

Pat Cleary, president of the National Association of Professional Employer Organizations, said his members, which provide HR services to businesses including legal compliance, are scrambling to figure out what's required under the law and what strategy makes the most sense.

"It's hard for employers to walk away completely. How are you going to be the employer of choice if you're not going to provide decent benefits? It's a consideration for employers of any size," Cleary said.

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