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February 22. 2014 1:29AM

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Ayotte aims for common ground with Obamacare changes


 


Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, greets guests at New Hampshire Business and Industry Association Luncheon at the Radisson in Manchester on Friday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER - It was no surprise the first subject Sen. Kelly Ayotte addressed during her talk Friday to the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire is the one expected to be the deciding factor in the 2014 congressional elections.

The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as even its namesake said he's proud to call it.

The Republican junior senator said no other subject has generated as much response among her constituents as the federal overhaul of health care insurance, including those who have lost their coverage, face higher premium costs or are unable to keep their physicians due to the exclusion of 10 hospitals from the New Hampshire health care exchange operated by Anthem, the state's only provider thus far.

"Since I've been in office I really haven't had so many people write me personal stories of the nature of the kind that I'm getting," Ayotte said during a luncheon address at the Radisson Hotel.

The senator said she sees potential for changes to the ACA, however, through two measures that have bipartisan support. support.

The first one Ayotte discussed has been a sore spot for many employers: the law's definition of a full-time employee as someone who works 30 hours or more.

Employers with 50 to 99 workers now have until 2016 until they must offer full-time health insurance to their most of their full-time workers, as part of a recent measure by the Obama administration, but some have been taking steps to prepare. (Companies with 100 workers or more must comply by 2015 but can avoid a fine by offering insurance to 70 percent of their workers next year, rather than 95 percent.)

"I ran into a guy the other day at the airport, and he was telling me his two sons had their hours cut. And what their employer told his sons was that 'We dropped your hours because we don't want you counted as a full-time employee under this law because we just can't afford it,'" Ayotte said.

Ayotte is backing a proposal by Republican Sen. Sue Collins of Maine and Democrat Joe Donnelly of Indiana that would define a full-time employee under ACA as someone who works an average of 40 hours a week.

While the issue is a concern to the business community, it's one that "really resonates with individuals" who are worried about getting their hours cut, said Ayotte, adding that labor unions that supported ACA also have voiced concerns about this aspect of the law, arguing it would destroy the 40-hour work week.

Ayotte also is optimistic about bipartisan support of a bill that would eliminate the medical device tax, which under the ACA places a 2.3 percent tax on revenues, rather than profits - which critics of the tax says adversely affects startup companies.

"I've been visiting many of our medical device companies here in New Hampshire, and there are some very good jobs there," Ayotte said. "They are very concerned that this tax is going to hurt not only the number of employees they have but hurt the business overall and hurt innovation in this area and research and development."

Ayotte, who is co-sponsoring legislation to repeal the tax, cited the Advance Medical Technology Association, which says the law has cost 33,000 jobs. In a report released last week, the industry trade group said nearly one-third of respondents in its online survey said they had reduced research and development as a result of the tax. Almost 10 percent said they had relocated manufacturing outside of the U.S. or expanded manufacturing abroad. Companies cut about 14,000 jobs and left an additional 19,000 openings unfilled.

Ayotte mentioned her recent visit to McClellan Automation Systems in Merrimack, a 140-employee company whose president told her the business has reduced its focus on medical device-related work as a result of the tax by more than half.

"He told me basically what I've heard from many: The ultimate concern we have with this tax is it's going to make these companies go overseas, where it will be less costly to produce the medical devices," Ayotte said. "Don't we want the best new medical devices coming here first?"

The repeal of the tax generated bipartisan approval when it was included in a budget resolution, Ayotte noted, but it needs to be approved in a separate bill to become law.

"This issue keeps bubbling to the surface, and I'm hopeful this is an area where we actually could find common ground," she said.

Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or mcote@unionleader.com.



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