By  on March 30, 1994

WASHINGTON -- As health care reform packages are patched together on Capitol Hill, the financial hit employers would take to help pay for universal coverage appears to be diminishing but not disappearing.

Lawmakers are adding protections for small businesses and delaying implementation of universal coverage to give employers time to adjust to the potential cost of insuring all their workers.

Retail lobbyists, although not sanguine, are buoyed by the shrinking proposals.

"Employer mandates are still alive," said Steve Pfister, a lobbyist for the National Retail Federation. "However, as the discussions evolve, more and more members question whether mandates are in the best interests of the country."

Pfister said he expected the final health care reform package to be pared from Clinton's ambitious plan but said the retail community has not let up in its opposition to mandates. Donald Fisher, chairman and ceo of The Gap, is among the executives who have collared members of Congress to object to mandates.

"They should give private enterprise a chance to reform the system, rather than having the government mandate everything," Fisher said in an interview during a recent Capitol Hill visit. He called the mandates "totally unacceptable" and said if The Gap were forced to insure all workers it would have to cut jobs.

One plan to emerge last week from the House Health Subcommittee led by Rep. Pete Stark (D., Calif.) spread the cost of universal care among big business, states and Medicare beneficiaries.

Under this compromise, $9 billion would be raised by levying a 1 percent payroll tax on businesses with at least 1,000 workers that self-insure. Business would still be required to pay 80 percent of the cost of health insurance premiums for employees. Clinton's plan would have levied the 1 percent tax on companies with more than 5,000 workers.

Stark acknowledged that the compromise would be radically changed when the full House Ways and Means Committee takes up health care in mid-April after its Easter break, but urged panel Democrats to back it just to keep health care reform alive.

A second House plan, being circulated by Rep. John Dingell (D., Mich.), would subsidize payments by small businesses for their employees.More proposals are in the works.

Rep. Ben Cardin (D., Md.), a member of the House Health Subcommittee who voted for the Stark compromise, said he is drafting an amendment that would exempt employers from insuring part-timers if these workers are covered by another insurance policy.

Rep. Fred Grandy (R., Iowa), another member of the House Health Subcommittee, said that if the votes of members friendly to the retail community are needed to pass a health care bill, the employer's share of premiums could be cut to 50 percent and the requirement that part-timers be insured could be eliminated.

"The employer's obligation to pay has enough support to be a part of any Democrat-driven bill," Grandy said in an interview, "but if they need the retail vote, it could be downsized."

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