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Guest: Seattle Times columnist misleading on Obamacare

The insurance marketplaces that form the centerpiece of President Obama's Affordable Care Act - commonly known as Obamacare - are scheduled to open on Tuesday. (AP file photo)

A co-worker of mine was livid, using words like “dishonest” and “shockingly misleading” to describe an article he’d just read.

While Jason Rantz is able to “rant” about things like a Seattle Times column on his own KIRO Radio talkshow, it wasn’t on due to the Sounders FC match.

What follows is a guest blog commentary by Jason Rantz regarding Obamacare. Here are his thoughts:

In this weekend’s Seattle Times, columnist Danny Westneat makes a shockingly misleading (and likely ideologically-driven) claim on how Obamacare affects part time workers both locally and nationally.

It was dishonest and does a disservice to readers – but likely fulfills what I suspect is a goal of Westneat: to demonize big businesses that don’t live up to his progressive values.

Westneat begins his piece Howard Schultz makes right choice not blaming Obamacare by lauding Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz for the decision to not cut health care benefits for its workers. He quotes Schultz from a Reuters article from August 26, 2013.

Whether Schultz is deserving of credit is up to you. It’s reasonable to be happy with his decision, but just as reasonable to say he’s simply doing what’s in his company’s best interest in retaining their employees. (It’s important to note that prior to Obamacare going into effect, Starbucks was already offering benefits to part time workers who work 20 hours a week or more. That is: Starbucks budgeted for that expense and deemed it affordable and worthwhile. Westneat doesn’t tell you that.)

Westneat then goes on to criticize businesses; specifically the “corporate CEOs [who] are slashing health benefits, mainly for part-time workers, and then declaiming that ‘Obamacare made me do it!'” Making it local, the columnist takes a hit at Safeway (which makes a fraction of the profits Starbucks makes globally) and QFC for their proposal to drop health care coverage for part time workers.

Westneat argues that Obamacare is not the impetus behind businesses cutting health care; rather, he argues that “that Obamacare is complex and confusing and so provides a convenient opportunity — an excuse — for companies to slash medical benefits and then blame the federal government.” He claims that there “is no requirement that they [businesses] cover part-time workers” and that “under the law, the employer could extend them coverage but also doesn’t have to — just as has been the case for decades.”

This is, regrettably, a remarkably misleading claim that aims to paint businesses in a negative light; it appears that Westneat is implying that they’re cutting benefits for greed (maybe they’re just evil?), not for any budgetary reasons and certainly not due to Obamacare. He’s wrong.

Under Obamacare, regardless of whether you’re deemed part time or full time, you are eligible for employer sponsored health care if you work more than an average of 30 hours a week at an employer with more than 50 employees. In other words, if you’re a part time worker who works 30 hours a week, you must be offered health care or the company faces a fine.

It’s important to note that Obamacare offers coverage to full-time equivalent employees (FTE). And as the National Federation of Independent Business notes “part-time employees’ hours will be converted into FTE employees for the purpose of determining whether the employer is a large employer subject to the employer mandate.”

Westneat is only partially correct – though just as misleading – when he claims whether or not you offer part time workers health care is as it’s been for decades.
Under Obamacare, you do not have to offer part time employees health care, but, if a company does not, the company is subject to a fine – which is brand spankin’ new.

Some further context (something missing from Westneat’s column): If employees are not offered affordable health care (which must cover a hefty core set of benefits and cost no more than 9.5% of an employee’s income; that is, affordable to the employee, not necessarily the employer), the employer is subject to a fine, which the Washington Post points out, is “not nearly as large as paying monthly health insurance premiums.”

Surely with such widely reported facts about Obamacare, something must have caused Westneat to claim what he did. His proof? Well, “Howard Schultz is the proof.”

He writes: Starbucks has upward of 100,000 part-time workers. Like the grocery stores, Starbucks gives health coverage to part-timers. But Schultz told them that under health care reform: “Nothing is going to change. We are going to continue, as we have always done, to provide this benefit to you.”

It appears Westneat is misinterpreting (willfully?) the comment, “nothing is going to change.” Perhaps if Westneat read the Reuters article he links to in his column – or, you know, finished reading the entire quote he uses in his own piece – he’d understand that Schultz is simply saying they will continue to offer the health benefits as they always have, and will simply absorb the costs. Schultz wasn’t referring to any change in part time rules under Obamacare.

Indeed, Westneat goes on to quote Schultz as saying, “I would encourage them to find ways to provide the insurance and not figure out a way to either lower the hours or get around the system.” (The system, in which Schultz refers, is one that forces big employers to offer pricey health care coverage or face fines).

This column by Westneat appears to be ideologically driven. Regardless of his motives, he’s just not accurate. It’s perfectly reasonable – and certainly within your right – to think big businesses should continue to offer health care coverage to part timers if they offered them before Obamacare. And if that’s your view, make that point, rather than mislead people into adopting your view. If you can’t make your point effectively without fudging some rather important context, then maybe your point isn’t very strong.

The Jason Rantz Show is heard live on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM every Saturday from 2pm-5pm and Sunday from 7pm-10pm.

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