Chamber Made Column-Feb. 9, 2013

We Will Not ‘Holla For A Dolla’

If you are a chamber of commerce official, you are not getting much sleep these days. Until the most recent storm, we were worried we would face yet another winter without precious snow, what fills our slopes, motors our snowmobiles and keeps our store owners, innkeepers and restaurant folks happy. Can we all just hope and pray now that we don’t experience our third winter thaw?!

Yet another concern that has chamber directors reaching for the Melatonin bottle is the health-care situation that is evolving on the state and national level. As the president of Chamber Benefits Inc., (CBI) the organization tasked to provide the best insurance premiums possible for the statewide chamber health insurance plan, I can state with some level of authority that I am as lost as the next person in trying to figure out what is coming down the road for heath care. Keep in mind our plan is not a small one. We have about 17,000 lives on this plan, amounting to about $60-million in premiums, and I am scratching my head as much as anyone else on what healthcare will mean in the years ahead.

In the 17 years I have worked at the Northeast Kingdom Chamber, almost all of those serving on CBI, we as an organization have tried to provide the best health insurance program possible for the three-dozen chambers throughout Vermont. For the most part, I think we have been very successful, with our plan being the most cost-effective plan in the state. That being said, saying your insurance plan is inexpensive in Vermont is a bit like saying that you are the least materialistic of the Kardashians, that it really doesn’t mean much.

Lest you think I am exaggerating my point on the confusion factor, I would like you to read the following quote taken from this week’s Lake Champlain Chamber “Legislative Update” and see how many times you have to read it to discern its meaning. “Several funding sources have been proposed to pay for Vermont’s health-care reform plans: doubling the claims assessment (a fee paid by insurers and self-insured employers on all health-insurance claims) and allowing the Catamount Health assessment to continue despite the plans to repeal the Catamount Health insurance program. We feel it is disingenuous to charge employers a fee for not providing insurance when the state is encouraging employers a fee for not providing insurance in 2014 so that their employees can access federal tax credits to help pay for coverage….”

That statement makes about as much sense as Honey Boo Boo on Go Go Juice. I don’t have a clue what it means, and, frankly, reading it over as many times as I have is making my head hurt.

All kidding aside, there is a bigger issue here that we don’t want to be lost, that any health insurance plan being offered needs to be cost-effective to users, health care institutions and employers and must be financially sustainable to us as taxpayers.

I would be lying if I did not admit that I am apprehensive about what the loss of the chamber health insurance plan will mean to my organization and others throughout the state, as about 25 percent of our membership is on the plan. I know chambers that have close to half of their membership on the plan, and their apprehension must be nearer to downright terror. While we chambers have strived for years to provide value-added benefits beyond the insurance plan, will our members misperceive us as one-hit wonders, believing that the insurance is our sole benefit and leave our ranks?

I can tell you for a fact that there will be no less work for chambers if that is to happen, if we lose that important revenue source. We will just have to struggle all the more to provide our very critical services in our communities and regions with the very limited funding sources allowed to chambers. Many do not realize we get NO state or municipal funding and any grant monies we can receive is extremely limited. For generations, we have provided services in our communities and region at no cost to taxpayers, doing everything we do for our members and our residents by ourselves. There will be chambers throughout Vermont that may close their doors in the next couple years, so uncertain is this situation. My own chamber will survive this storm, as we have been preparing for it for years, but it won’t be easy.

As we go forward, I ask all of you to look at your chambers of commerce throughout the region and see us for the many benefits that we provide beyond our health and dental insurance plans, as we are nowhere near that “one-hit wonder” perception that I noted. In challenging times like this, we need our chambers of commerce more than ever.

(Darcie McCann is the executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Chamber. She, unlike Honey Boo Boo, will not holla for a dolla.)

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