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Local business community identifies concerns

Health care costs, public sector benefits lead the list

July 01, 2011
LITTLETON—The Business and Industry Association (BIA), in conjunction with the Littleton Area Chamber of Commerce (LACC), hosted a Littleton Business Roundtable discussion last Tuesday as part of a series across the state designed to better inform the group what issues are of most importance to New Hampshire's business community.

"Our mission is to promote a healthy economy and to watch the business community's back in the legislature," explained BIA President Jim Roche to the room of local business owners, public officials, and concerned citizens. Last week's roundtable was part of a months-long process to help identify what issues are on the mind of New Hampshire's business community.

BIA Vice President David Juvet began the discussion with a brief summary of the legislative session that ended just last week. The big issue in the past couple months has been the budget, he said, as the state works to bridge the deficit. The $10.2 billion budget sent to the governor last week for approval represents an 11 percent decrease in state spending, but sees the elimination of more than 1,000 jobs (with many already left vacant, this translates into roughly 200 layoffs) and cuts $230 million in subsidies to hospitals across the state over the next two years.

"It's a significant hit to major employers," said Juvet in reference to the cut to hospital reimbursement, calling the measure a tax on New Hampshire's hospitals.

While hospitals will continue to pay the Medicaid Enhancement Tax, a 5.5 percent on net patient service revenues on all hospitals in the state designed to help the state generate federal revenue, the state will not reimburse them for care of uninsured or Medicaid-insured patients. The Medicaid program funds only 50 cents for every dollar of care. This would affect 19 of the state's 26 hospitals. The remaining seven, Littleton Regional Hospital (LRH) included, are considered critical access hospitals and would not be directly affected. In the broader sense, Chape said the measure will most likely shift costs to other businesses, which will have to pay higher premiums for their health insurance coverage.

"It's going to affect us all," said LRH CEO Warren West. West said that, though LRH is a critical access hospital and shouldn't be directly affected by the measure, the formula to determine who and how much will be reimbursed is still being determined, and could affect LRH in some way.

Roche made a broader comment on the small business/hospital relationship, noting that as employers across the state change to plans with higher deductibles in order to keep premiums low, hospitals are faced with the added responsibility of chasing more people down to get them to pay their bills. Other health care issues identified as concerns during the meeting included the cost shifting of health insurance costs, inefficient processing of Medicaid cases, and a lack of competition in the health insurance industry.

"It's a broken system," said Roche. "It's a system where supply controls demand."

The issue identified as of paramount importance by Littleton business people is the burden public sector employees place on the private sector, a familiar theme in Littleton this past year that manifested itself in the State Employees Association's (SEA) boycott of twelve local businesses. The SEA issued the boycott, which remained largely unpopular within the community, for what it perceived as intimidation from certain business owners, designed to get their tenants and customers to vote for a budget that placed profit over public safety.

Chutters Owner and LACC President Jim Alden brought up the concern, saying that taxpayers are left footing the bill of the ever-rising benefits for employees in the public sector.

"Until there's some really structural changes to the public sector employee system, I don't know how we're going to deliver," said Alden.

Alden argued that this less flexible system not only affects the ability of the public sector to work and manage efficiently, but raises the cost of health care for other businesses. The private sector moved away from the kinds of benefits the public sector offers a few decades ago, said Alden, but the public sector is still moving forward at an exponential rate. He wants the state to start moving away from those kinds of benefit packages, as well.

"Somebody needs to put together a plan to get there in three to five years," he said. "It's not going to happen overnight."

Executive Councilor and Grafton County Commissioner Ray Burton looked at the union issue in a broader context.

"Over the years, over the long haul, you've got to give unions their due," he said. "They've done well by their members, but the pendulum is starting to swing."

Burton suggested supporting wellness programs that encourage such things as walking everyday and eating well, and can prevent the need for people to seek medical attention later on, lessening the tax on the system.

Alden also spoke on the subject of the Northern Pass, the energy project that would bring hydro-generated power from Canada to southern New England by way of a 180-mile transmission line of 90 to 135-foot towers cutting through New Hampshire. The massive project is being undertaken by Hydro-Quebec, NSTAR, and Public Service of New Hampshire's (PSNH) parent company, Northeast Utilities.

Alden outlined a short-term concern of the drop in real estate prices along the projected path that has already begun, and the long-term concern of the effect on tourism, as the line could be seen coming out of the Franconia Notch Parkway. Alden's chief concern involving the project right now, however, is clarity.

"One thing business doesn't want in general is [a lack of] clarity," he said. "Five years of not knowing where this thing is going could hurt us."

Roche said the BIA is not taking a stance either way on the Northern Pass project at this time, as its membership is divided.

"We have no dog in this fight, at this point. We are neutral," said Roche, though Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH) President Gary Long also serves as president of BIA's Board of Directors.

"Is there anything the BIA could do sift through all the information out there?" asked Alden. Roche spoke about potentially hosting a forum or debate on the subject, but added that many local chambers across the state have already done so.

LACC Executive Director Chad Stearns suggested looking at extending the cut-off time for selling alcohol. Currently, stores not allowed to sell alcohol past 11:45 for off-premises sales and 1 p.m. for on-premises sales. As a region and state that relies heavily on tourism, the policy – earlier than other New England states – can dissuade people from visiting or spending more money, said Stearns.

Stearns also brought up the Shoreland Protection Act, which he said can dissuade developers away from businesses along waterways, such as the Ammonoosuc River in Littleton.

"People are just so scared of the regulations that they don't even look into it," said Stearns.

BIA Vice President Michael Lacata said the budget bill will most likely include a landowner-friendly revision of the act. Changes would include stricter regulations on the Department of Environmental Services (DES) right to show up on someone's land without prior notification, and more lenient repercussions for violations.

The BIA has over 400 member businesses statewide, including local entities like The Littleton Coin Company, The Mount Washington Hotel, Garnet Hill, and New England Wire Technology. The Littleton roundtable was one of 10 held across the state this month. Next month, the BIA will send out an online survey based on the information gathered in the roundtables, asking its members to rank issues from greatest to least importance. At August's policy committee meeting, the BIA will sort the issues into the five categories to be spearheaded by five distinct sub-committees: healthcare/workforce, economic development, environment, fiscal policy/taxes and fees, and energy. September will see the public release of this information translated into an overarching list of goals for the BIA for the coming legislative session.

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