Liz & Steve Parker, small business owners – Tulsa Rib Company – 
Orange, CA

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Before my husband Steve started our restaurant 31 years ago, he worked as a dishwasher and in every other kind of food service job. He saw up close the struggle of employees who couldn’t take care of their families. They couldn’t pay a doctor to see a sick child, much less go to a hospital. So when Steve and his partners opened Tulsa Ribs, it was a no-brainer for them to provide employees with decent health insurance.

But that was then and this is now.

During our first 20 years in business, health insurance was something affordable, good for our employees and the right thing to do. Now it’s becoming the difference between being profitable and having this single expense lead to the company’s demise.

Last year our premium with Aetna went from $72,000 a year to $100,000. It was a crisis. We’d be selling every plate of ribs at loss if we wanted to stay competitive. In addition, our competitors do not offer health coverage, so we are at a competitive disadvantage keeping our employees covered while theirs become a taxpayer’s burden. We are not mad at them, it just points out the injustice happening all over the country.

For right now, we were fortunate to find a new insurance agent and an HMO policy with Kaiser for nearly 40% less, though it came at a cost for our employees. We had to add a deductible of a few hundred dollars and $40 co-pay for doctor visits. That’s a real burden for our employees and we’ve already had to loan one father the deductible for a family emergency. These aren’t families with a cushion in the bank.

Because we have few employees, we pay more for health insurance than a big business would pay for similar coverage. We feel taken advantage of by the insurance companies. But we also see the change it makes in our employees’ and their families’ lives. One of our workers had a long struggle with stomach cancer, and his family would have lost its home without insurance.

We can’t turn our backs, but we also can’t go on much longer under the 30% annual rate increases we’ve seen in the past decade. We’re hoping small businesses will gain more pricing clout under the health insurance Exchanges called for by health reform. But that’s still no guarantee of fair prices, and won’t go into effect until 2014.

Government needs to step in now. My small business is more regulated than my health insurer. It is a sad statement that we have inspectors to certify our drains, but no inspectors to certify these outrageous premium increases.

I know that auto insurance rates are regulated, so it makes sense that we now need the same thing for health insurance. We need the insurance commissioner to oversee rates, to have an elected watchdog holding the companies accountable.  If the health insurance companies acted responsibly and fairly, I would be fighting against increased regulation. But they have not.

The situation today is mind-numbing. We’re not very political, but we have to be involved in this. We want to keep doing the right thing and we can’t do it without help.

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