Ken Oplinger

Ken Oplinger, President and CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry, shares some of his views on healthcare reform in his region.

Q: What are you hearing from your members about healthcare reform?

A: What I’m generally hearing from my members is that there certainly is a need for some kind reform in healthcare. For about 10 years now most of my members have experienced at least low double-digit increases in the amount of money that they’re paying in premiums for health insurance for their employees, and at some point in time it becomes for most businesses untenable to maintain the programs that they had. So they may not understand or like the changes that have been made, but I think that there is just general agreement that we’ve got to have a change.

At the same time, some of my members, especially the smaller businesses, are scratching their heads over how we got to the point that it is employers’ responsibility to provide healthcare insurance for their employees. Small business owners are at times having to take two to three full work days out of their time each year to be able to meet with insurance brokers and try to deal with healthcare issues. So I think that for the most part a lot of small businesses would love to see something where healthcare isn’t their responsibility anymore. If they need to help fund it, that’s one thing. But there’s a difference between partially paying into a system for healthcare and being the person who is responsible for providing healthcare coverage for your employees, and I think that’s where a lot of smaller businesses are starting to draw the line.

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Q: What do you and your members see as the challenges and opportunities of healthcare reform?

A: The broad-based concepts certainly make some sense–the idea of finding ways to add folks into the system and broaden the pool so you get the costs down. The difficulty that we have is that in the next four years, before the things that are supposed to help buy down the costs are fully realized, we are going to continue to have large increases in premiums, plus new expenses tied to mandates that have been put in place, such as covering kids through their parents’ policies until they are 26 and covering preexisting conditions. That’s where our concern lies in the next 4 years: are we going lose so many businesses because of healthcare cost increases that we haven’t really achieved any sort of a benefit at all?

As far as opportunities to go, we want to continue to make sure that the elements of reform intended to help small businesses, such as tax credits, are fully developed and then let the business community know what opportunities are out there to help them continue to provide healthcare to their employees.

Also as we go forward, we need to ensure that there continue to be provisions in next four years for those who can’t afford or access care. WAHA has done a great job in the past of helping individuals to find healthcare. We need to continue that work, but I think we need to expand that into a lot of these small businesses to help them identify ways to find affordable healthcare coverage for their employees.

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Q: What particular opportunities do you see for this region in implementing healthcare reform?

A: Bellingham is a very progressive city; it’s open to finding new ways of dealing with issues, looking at problems and seeing how others have solved these problems and bringing those best practices into place. From that perspective, you may see an ability in this community to adapt to these changes more quickly than a lot of other communities. Clearly through a group like WAHA, we’ve seen that this community, especially on healthcare, wants to be a leader, wants to find ways to deal with these things and is open to sharing those ideas out with other communities.

From an economic perspective, although our cost of living is high and our average wage is fairly low, we generally have a lower unemployment rate and much higher educational attainment than the rest of the state and the rest of the US. So I think you will find from an affordability standpoint that people here, on a broad basis, will be able to deal with whatever is coming forward more easily than in other communities.

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Q: Any other thoughts about healthcare reform?

A: Often we talk about healthcare reform from the side of insurance and how it’s going to play out from that perspective. One of the things that I’ve heard more and more folks talking about is the actual provision of healthcare and the increasingly limited choices. We’re told that you have to bring providers together to get more efficient management so the costs go down, but are there other things we’re losing because you don’t have some of the competition and choice involved? It will be interesting as we go forward to see whether those sorts of concerns are addressed.

This is the first in a series of interviews with community members about their perspectives on healthcare reform.

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