Published online: Jul 04, 2012 Potato Harvesting, Potato Equipment
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A Supreme Court ruling upholding the individual mandate for health insurance in the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act still leaves many questions unanswered for the food industry and migrant workers.

The June 28 193-page
decision was a surprise to Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the Vienna, Va.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers.

"The surprise was that they decided it was okay as a tax issue," he said.

Political observers believed that the Supreme Court couldn't uphold the mandate under the "commerce clause."

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said, "The Government asks us to read the mandate not as ordering individuals to buy insurance, but rather as imposing a tax on those who do not buy that product."

While the individual mandate to buy health insurance was not supportable under the commerce clause, the penalty for not purchasing insurance was acceptable when viewed as a tax, he said.

As written, the health care law still has holes that leave some workers falling through the cracks, industry leaders said. The health care law fails to account for the fact that seasonal workers have several employers, said said Tom Nassif, president of Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers.

"It appears that the majority of migrant workers won't work anywhere long enough to have mandated coverage," Gasperini said.

However, Gasperini said farm labor contractors could face larger health care costs.

"If individual growers use farm labor contractors, they will have to pay because farm labor contractors will be required to have benefits," he said.

Jason Resnick, general counsel for Western Growers, said many workers won't be eligible to participate in state-run exchanges because they are not authorized legal workers. What's more, what insurance coverage that is offered now to farm workers may be disappear because of expected higher costs associated the law's robust requirements.

"This (law) does nothing to drive down the costs of health care or health insurance," Resnick said.

Though Western Growers Assurance Trust-an insurance provider-and others have received waivers on coverage caps until 2014, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires that health insurance products contain no annual caps on coverage. Western Growers offers insurance products to growers, but those insurance plans currently have limits on coverage to make them affordable to employers and employees.

"We won't be able to continue to offer (health insurance plans) without changes to the law," he said.

Resnick said agriculture needs an exemption from the law to continue to offer affordable health insurance plans to their workers.

Currently, Resnick said about 130,000 farm employees and their dependents have health care insurance from their employers in California and Arizona. About 83,000 farm employees and their dependents are offered coverage through Western Growers alone, he said.

"What's going to happen is that farm workers who are currently receiving group health insurance from their employers will lose that coverage and won't be able to afford coverage on thier own and they won't be eligible to receive it through the exchange," Resnick said. "Their health care claims are going to be paid for by public dollars."

Nassif said it appears that health insurance rates cannot go anywhere but up and make health care less affordable and less desirable for Western Growers members to provide.

Legislation is needed on the federal level that deals with undocumented and seasonal workers, Nassif said. "The law was designed for people who work 8 to 5 in offices and not for people who were going to have a different employer every couple of weeks or every couple of months," he said.

Nassif said that Republicans and Democrats need to come together to fix the health care legislation and make implementation of the law fair, economical and achieve the purposes of making sure people get affordable health care. "We have a limit on how long the negotiations to reforming this law can take before it is too late," he said.

Most mandates for employers on health insurance don't kick in until 2014, but next year will be a big year for business to prepare for the law, Gasperini said.

SOURCE: Ag Professional