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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 30, 2003

Incentives sought to insure workers

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Health Writer

Gov. Linda Lingle yesterday proposed incentives to encourage businesses to provide health insurance for more workers and pledged more state support of community health centers.

Gov. Linda Lingle said she will ask the 2004 Legislature to pass a law that would allow small businesses to band together when negotiating health insurance plans.

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Government must also track down uninsured people who are eligible for public health programs "the way we go after votes," Lingle said at a conference in Waikiki on Hawai'i's growing number of uninsured residents.

The daylong conference was sponsored by the Hawai'i Uninsured Project, a coalition of healthcare policy-makers.

One in 10 Hawai'i residents does not have health insurance, double the rate of two decades ago when Hawai'i led the nation in the percentage of people with healthcare. Hawai'i now ranks No. 8. Officials attribute the change largely to a shifting job landscape in which more people work part time or are self-employed — groups not covered by Hawai'i's law mandating employer-provided health insurance.

Lingle said she will ask the 2004 Legislature to pass a law that would allow small businesses to band together when negotiating health insurance plans. Organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce of Hawai'i and Small Business Hawai'i could negotiate on behalf of the small businesses as a group, allowing them lower rates and more options.

Small-business owner Joyce Edwards, whose Kalihi office-services firm has 13 employees, said she'd be open to a proposal that would offer a wider choice of insurance options to small businesses like hers.

"We have to take what we get; we don't have any negotiation power," said Edwards, president and co-owner of The Systemcenter, which specializes in furniture sales, mobile storage and records management systems. "But if you had 1,000 people, you might have more options."

She added, "Where it's really hurting is people who have four or five (employees), because some insurance companies won't even look at you until you have 10."

State Sen. Sam Slom, who is also president of Small Business Hawai'i, said such a solution could help short-term, but that he generally opposes legislation that forces businesses to act in a certain way, even when it would help other businesses.

"It will not do what we need to do, which is bring competition into the market," said Slom, R-8th (Wai'alae Iki, Hawai'i Kai).

Slom said he would like to see modifications of the state law to allow a "cafeteria-style" plan in which businesses can design custom plans.

Lingle also proposed revisiting an old idea: providing incentives such as tax credits to employers who offer healthcare insurance to part-time employees. The state's Prepaid Health Care Act of 1974 requires employers to provide health insurance to workers who work more than 20 hours a week.

Lingle also proposed increasing the state's annual $5 million subsidy to the state's 10 community health centers, which care for, among others, people with health insurance. Lingle said the increase "will be a substantial amount" but did not specify how much.

Lingle's administration drew loud protest earlier this year after proposing to cut $1.65 million set aside for the community health centers. The proposed cut was later rescinded.

May Akamine, executive director of the Kalihi-Palama Health Center, said more money "would increase the numbers of people that we can serve."

During the past two years, she said, the center has been able to increase the total number of patients by 20 percent.

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2429.