A controversial addition to the national health care reform bill was removed before it could become law.
The amendment, introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., would have required construction companies with at least five employees and payrolls exceeding $250,000 to provide their workers with health coverage or face stiff penalties.
But the version of the bill that was signed into law by President Obama eliminated the Merkley amendment along with a number of other provisions.
“It would have been a killer to small businesses,” said Jeff Fausett, president/CEO of Aquatech Corp. in Costa Mesa, Calif. “And it’s one of the reasons our industry needs to stay alert not just to state measures, but to federal legislation as well.”
Added just prior to the Senate’s Christmas Eve vote on health care reform, the amendment was criticized for singling out construction firms; for all other industries, the standard to provide health care is 50 employees.
Merkley’s office said the measure was proposed “to ensure fair competition.”
The Florida Swimming Pool Association was among the first trade groups to denounce the amendment. Officials there joined with representatives from the National Federation of Independent Business, Associated Builders and Contractors, and Independent Electrical Contractors earlier this year to alert potentially affected businesses to the issue.
In addition to FSPA, a number of pool and spa industry associations distributed circulars and form letters to members, who could use them to contact their respective lawmakers. The challenge then became explaining how and why the provision was so potentially damaging.
“Things were changing so quickly that you didn’t know what was in and what was out,” said Lawrence Caniglia, executive director of the Northeast Spa & Pool Association in Hamilton, N.J. “Unless it’s an issue that hits your pocketbook directly, you’re not likely to get involved. And I’m not sure everybody understood this one.”
But with the Merkley amendment removed, the question now becomes how to effectively address harmful legislation in the future. For one, advocates maintain that strength in numbers remains critical.
“You need a lot of voices,” said John Norwood, president/CEO of SPEC, California’s pool and spa industry lobbying group. “Small-business groups have to come together. You can’t have just 10 percent of the people participating.
“That said, lobbying now is about combining the grass-roots in the district with direct lobbying and public relations efforts,” Norwood added. “If you’re well-funded, you can do all of that. The problem is, most groups aren’t.”
Early detection systems also must be in place. For that, many in the industry look to Jennifer Hatfield, who heads up government relations at FSPA and, more recently, the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals.
Hatfield twice alerted APSP members and affiliates to the Merkley amendment — once during the holidays when the issue was raised, and again in mid-March just prior to the health care bill’s passage in the House. She also stayed in close contact with lobbyists from other interested associations.
Sometimes it’s these all-encompassing pieces of legislation, Hatfield said, that can really impact the industry. For instance, could the amendment have included pool and spa retailers that employ construction crews, or even suppliers, distributors and manufacturers that depend on the construction industry?
“We know it would have affected builders as well as service members who do remodeling/renovations,” she said. “But depending on how broadly it was interpreted, it could have had further implications. So that was a major concern of ours, too — how far-reaching it could be.”