Localities split on providing health benefits for part-time workers

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Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

Like states and businesses, the region's counties and cities are also struggling with part-time workers who become eligible for health care benefits starting next year.

A provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires employers with more than 50 workers to offer health insurance to anyone that works 30 hours a week or risk massive fines. And some localities are considering capping wage workers to 29 hours a week to get around the law.

"That is something we're looking at," said Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart in Virginia. "We hire a lot of seasonal employees so that could really have an impact on us."

Not everyone is seeking massive changes. Montgomery County already offers health benefits to its nearly 800 part-time employees that work at least 20 hours a week. Fairfax County recently took a similar step to offer insurance to an additional 1,500 employees, including about 1,000 wage workers who put in between 20 and 30 hours per week, at a cost of about $5,000 a year per employee.

Other jurisdictions are still learning how President Obama's health care reforms are affecting their budgets. Prince George's County is looking at the issue with a consultant. The District would not comment on what it was considering.

"We are still researching the law and its impact," said Alex McCray, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Human Resources.

Fewer individuals receiving employer-provided coverage means a greater burden on Medicaid and the new state and federal health insurance exchanges that will become operational next year. The Obama administration believes states and localities will save money in the long run by providing insurance instead of dumping workers into the private market.

"The experience in Massachusetts, along with projections from the Congressional Budget Office, suggest that the health care law will improve the affordability and accessibility of health care without significantly affecting the labor market," according to a Department of Health and Human Services official. "Making health insurance more affordable will make it easier for employers to provide coverage to their workers."

But Stewart was pessimistic.

"Unfortunately," he said, "this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the unintended consequences of Obamacare."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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