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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) took the angry tone of this summer's health care town halls down a notch Wednesday afternoon, meeting with state representatives of the National Federation of Independent Business and three local small-business owners in his district office here.
Kind, who voted against the Democrats' health care reform bill as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, defended the revamped package in a wide-ranging hourlong conversation, trying to address the concerns and fears of the small-business owners.
The intimate meeting came a day after Kind spoke to a fairly even-tempered crowd of about 300 constituents in Darlington, Wis., about health care. While Kind faced a gentler audience than some of his colleagues encountered earlier this month, the business owners still voiced skepticism over the uncertainty and lack of specifics in the health reform proposals and how they might affect small businesses.
"Distrust, concern, fear, I think these are the words that sum up where the small-business community is," NFIB Wisconsin State Director Bill Smith said. Kind tried to assuage the business owners' concerns about the cost of health care reform and how the proposed legislation could affect the health care insurance plans for themselves and their employees.
"There's going to be some uncertainty, and that's natural," Kind said. "The hardest thing to change is the status quo."
As a provider of health insurance for his employees, Mike Conlin, owner of Dynamic Displays in Eau Claire, said he was really concerned about whether the plans available now will exist after health care legislation is passed.
"Will what we offer continue to be able to be offered?" Conlin asked. "I don't see any guarantee of that."
Conlin and his 15 employees make industrial monitors and displays, and Conlin provides his workers with health savings accounts.
Kind tried to assure Conlin that Congress is looking to expand the system, not reduce the number of choices.
"We're building on the existing system," he said.
The business owners were also concerned about the cost of the program. Kind acknowledged that the difficulty in passing health reform is on how to pay for it. While there is consensus in Congress on about 85 percent of the provisions of health reform, according to Kind, much of the disagreement is on where to find savings and revenue.
Kind stayed calm throughout the exchange even as the small-business owners alluded to his potential interest in running for governor in 2010 now that Gov. Jim Doyle (D) has just announced his intention to retire.
Unlike many of the health care town halls throughout the country, which have focused on generalities, the small-business owners had specific questions regarding the cost and coverage of the proposed plan.
Wes Vlcek, owner of R&R Repair in Eau Claire, also voiced skepticism about the government's ability to produce affordable health care and put "teeth" into the proposal to force individuals like students to get health insurance.
Kind responded that students in particular will be aided by the package because it allows parents to extend their employer coverage to older students.
"You'll find most of the students stay on their parents' plans," Kind said.
Sherry Wubben of La Crosse, Wis., raised several questions about how the changes to the system would affect companies that self-insure their employees.
Owner of a large farm equipment company, Wubben has 165 employees and pointed out that one provision in the health care legislation would allow the government to review whether companies are financially stable enough to self-insure employees.
"We made a conscious decision to reduce the costs for employees," Wubben said. I "feel a little bit concerned that the federal government will make a determination whether we're financially viable; I think I'm more financially viable than the federal government."