MANDATE CRITICS RAP NEW HEALTH BILL

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- With Congress set to open debate this week on health insurance reform, the supermarket industry's opponents to mandatory employer payments for health care don't appear to be appeased by a bill unveiled last week by Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell that would slow the mandate process.The bill from Mitchell, D-Maine, endorsed last week by President Clinton, would require employers

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- With Congress set to open debate this week on health insurance reform, the supermarket industry's opponents to mandatory employer payments for health care don't appear to be appeased by a bill unveiled last week by Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell that would slow the mandate process.

The bill from Mitchell, D-Maine, endorsed last week by President Clinton, would require employers to pay half of their employees' premiums if 95% of all Americans don't have health coverage by 2002. That contrasts with the House bill, crafted by Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., which would require employers pay 80% of their workers' health premiums. Large employers would pay their share of premiums in 1997, and small companies, with fewer than 100 workers would have to ante up in 1999.

Opponents of employer mandates -- and there are many in the supermarket industry -- don't find solace in Mitchell's proposal, despite the lower cost.

"It's a case of getting a bullet to the head or being slashed slowly to death," said Bruce Gates, vice president of public affairs for the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association. "Sen. Mitchell's bill is more moderate in its approach, and signifies a willingness to negotiate. But we're opposed to any form of mandate."

Tom Wenning, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Grocers Association, said Mitchell's plan could initially save employers on health care costs, but he called the proposal a "backdoor mandate."

If it's enacted, Congress could be tempted to raise the employer share of the cost, he said.

The health care debate, unlike most other issues, has polarized supermarkets into two camps because a number of companies favor some form of mandates. While debate is set to begin this week, the House and Senate are both set to adjourn Aug. 12. However, leaders in both houses have promised to keep lawmakers in session to work on health care legislation.

Observers note that it's questionable whether there are enough votes for a proposal involving mandates to pass. Gates predicted that the House is as many as 60 votes short of the majority it needs.

Among those in the supermarket industry seeking market-based reform on health care is Tom Zatina, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Bozzuto's in Cheshire, Conn. Zatina said he prefers to see medical liability reform, portability of policies, elimination of coverage exclusion for pre-existing conditions and the end of caps on the deductibility of premiums for the self-employed.

Mary Dechow, manager of government relations for Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., said reform programs advocated by President Clinton and congressional Democratic leadership could hurt employees more than employers.

"If we are forced to insure part-timers, we could be put in the position of taking benefit money being spent on full-timers to pay for part-timers," Dechow said.