(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

By Awesta Sarkash

As the Virginia Assembly entered its last week of the 2020 session, I had hoped that state legislators were prepared to make good on their promises of protecting affordable health care for small business and all Virginians. Yet, late in the day on Monday, the General Assembly passed a bill that does the exact opposite.

Fast forward 24 hours, lawmakers voted to send legislation to the governor’s desk to make Virginia the 14th state in the country to establish a state-based exchange to facilitate the purchase and sale of health plans to residents.

As an advocate for small businesses, I am left to wonder how these two health care priorities align to keep rates low for business owners and their employees.

And the answer is that they don’t.

Monday’s vote for a bill to expand the use of non-Affordable Care Act compliant health plans is in direct contradiction of the move toward establishing a state exchange. However, there is still time for state legislators to get their priorities straight and cast votes to keep health care affordable for Virginia’s small business owners and residents.

During the remaining few days of the session, the Assembly is set to vote on additional pieces of legislation that could further alter Virginia’s health care system. If these bills are not carefully considered, the impacts will have a ripple effect across the state, and small businesses will be left to bear the brunt of contradictory policies by paying higher rates for less robust coverage.

As the driver of Virginia’s economy, the commonwealth’s 750,000 small businesses employ more than 1.5 million people and account for 99.5% of all businesses in the state.

As a collective group, small employers are an economic powerhouse, but, taken individually, many business owners say that the rising cost of health care is one of the most significant barriers to growing and maintaining their businesses. Despite recent actions to expand health care access by the state, thousands of the state’s entrepreneurs and small business employees remain uninsured.

Which is why this week’s remaining votes are all the more critical.

If legislators are truly committed to addressing the state’s uninsured rate and promoting more affordability for the small business community, they will vote to place limits on Short-Term Limited Duration health plans and Association Health Plans (AHPs), both of which offer skimpy, unregulated coverage.

Short-term plans, meant to be used as a plan of last resort when a gap in coverage would have occurred, can leave business owners vulnerable when an unexpected illness or injury strikes. According to a recent report from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a patient on a short-term plan who is diagnosed with lymphoma could pay upwards of $45,800 in hospital bills, while someone on an ACA compliant plan would pay on average $6,300.

Costly hospital bills can easily bankrupt a business owner and crush their business, and a recent study found that two-thirds of small business owners in Virginia support banning short-term insurance.

Similarly, AHPs would create less regulated insurance market, drawing out healthier people from the coverage pool, and raising rates for everyone else. Under these plans, small businesses will pay more and entrepreneurship would suffer.

So, as the session draws to a close, and Assembly members prepare to cast their final votes, they ought to remember that mismatched health care policies impact small businesses the most. It is time that they get their priorities straight.

Awesta Sarkash is Small Business Majority’s government affairs manager, where she oversees policy and government affairs in Virginia and the nation’s capital.