As a nonprofit business, Partnership4Kids can't afford a “boatload of penalties” by the federal government if the Omaha organization fails to comply with new health care laws, said Deb Denbeck, president of the mentoring service.

The problem is, all the rules for compliance aren't even in place.

To learn what's in store under the Affordable Care Act — the rules, the penalties, the role that the health exchanges will play — Denbeck and other employers spent Wednesday afternoon hearing from attorneys with the Omaha office of Kutak Rock about what they need to know to prepare for the coming health care coverage overhaul.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, companies employing 50 full-time workers or their equivalent must offer affordable health care insurance to full-time workers or face steep fines. The biggest changes will occur next year, but portions of the law go into effect this year. Employers must begin withholding an additional 0.9 percent from employees making above $200,000, for example.

More than 100 employers or their representatives attended the four-hour seminar.

Juliana Reno, a partner with Kutak Rock, kicked off the seminar by explaining the logic behind the 2010 law.

When medical facilities can't collect payment from uninsured or indigent patients, they rely on insured patients to foot the bill, Reno said, and “bad debt is built into your health insurance rates.”

“In theory, if more people are covered, then your costs won't be so much,” Reno said. “More coverage means better collections, and health care reform is about getting more healthy people into the system.

“Will it work that way? I don't know.”

How it all shakes out remains to be seen, but employers need to start examining the health care coverage options they now offer employees and ask: Will the coverage fit the mandate, and if not, what are the alternatives?

For some businesses, it may be cheaper not to offer workers' health care coverage and pay the penalties.

“But if you want to attract and hire good employees, you'll want to offer those benefits,” Reno said.

On March 1, business owners must distribute a notice to their employees telling them about health exchanges, which essentially are online markets where people can purchase health insurance and the only place qualified buyers can get government subsidies to help with costs.

“We expect a model notice to be published by the Department of Labor, but it hasn't been published yet,” Kathryn Magli, a partner with Kutak Rock, told participants.

Still, now is the time to look at penalties, shop for coverage and figure out what portion of employees' health insurance premiums a business wants to pay, Reno said.

“Premiums are deductible,” she said. “Penalties are not.”

The penalty for not providing affordable health care insurance is calculated by the number of full-time workers whom a business employs. “The maximum penalty you pay is $2,000 times the number of full-time employees minus 30. For example, if you employ 100 employees, you'll pay $140,000 in penalties — 100 minus 30,” Reno said.

And many businesses need to calculate the number of full-time workers they employ, Reno said. Employers may consider someone working 30 hours a week a part-time employee, but that's not how the federal government views it. “A full-time employee is someone averaging more than 30 hours per week,” she said.

The myriad rules, formulas and deadlines “are very confusing — and I've done a lot of research,” said Steven White, owner of Custom Computing, an Omaha company that does software development and medical billing.

White said he learned a lot from Thursday's seminar, and it reassured him that he's not the only one dealing with unfinished definitions.

“I think we are all waiting to see what the final regulations look like,” he said.

As confusing as the rules might appear, business owners who begin grappling with the regulations now are going to be better prepared to comply with the “pay or play” mandate in 2014 than those who delay, said John Schembari, a partner with Kutak Rock. He urged employers to get to know the deadlines that lie ahead.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1142, janice.podsada@owh.com

Contact the writer: 402-444-1142, janice.podsada@owh.com

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