Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday unveiled a proposal to help Maine small businesses defray health insurance costs for their employees as premiums rise.
“If you’re a business owner or employee, those costs are very difficult to pick up,” Mills said in Portland at Coffee By Design, which she held up an example of small business that “worked so hard to do the right thing” during the pandemic by providing coverage for employees.
As Maine now seeks to get its economy back on track, she cautioned, “the cost of health insurance may stall recovery for many small businesses.”
To help, Mills is proposing to use $39 million in newly allocated federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to reduce monthly premiums for small businesses by $50 per covered employee, starting as soon as July 1 and through Dec. 31, 2022.
If passed by state lawmakers, the Small Business Health Care Cost Relief Program “will provide small businesses with short-term financial relief from health insurance premiums, as these businesses recover from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mills said.
“By helping them better afford health insurance, we can lighten the load for business, we can help their employees stay healthy and stay on the job, and we can keep our economic recovery moving in the right direction.”
The proposal, part of the Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan unveiled in early May, comes after monthly health insurance premiums in the small market, serving businesses with 50 or fewer employees, jumped by about 33% from March 2017 to March 2020, according to a news release issued after Mills’ visit. During the same three-year period, the number of individuals insured dropped 18% from 61,200 to 50,000..
Mills’ plan was welcomed by Mary Allen Lindemann, co-founder of Coffee By Design, which went from 65 to 25 employees “overnight” at the start of the pandemic and now has 35, she said.
During the pandemic even as revenues dropped 70%, the company provided 90 days of full health insurance coverage for furloughed employees “until we knew what COVID was,” Lindemann told a small group of reporters.
She told Mainebiz afterwards, “Health care was important because people working here are part of the family. The last thing we wanted was for people to get sick and be without health insurance … Any help we can get is welcome because health care is not a privilege, but a right.”
She also underscored the need for Coffee By Design to stand by its values during tough times like the pandemic, saying, “We are a B Corp … During COVID we had to prove it.”
Photo / Renee Cordes
Coffee By Design co-founder Mary Allen Lindemann with Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday inside the coffee shop.
‘Keep recovery moving’
If Mills’ proposal is passed, it would be administered by the Maine Bureau Department of Insurance, whose superintendent Eric A. Cioppa was also present on Thursday.
“As we remain focused on Maine’s economic recovery,” Mill said, “we know that our economy cannot succeed without strong businesses and healthy employees [and] a healthy workforce.”
While Mills held up an empty Coffee By Design cup during her public remarks to avoid spilling, as she told Mainebiz, she later grabbed a real cup to catch up with Lindemann before heading back to Augusta.
Thursday’s visit marked the governor’s fifth stop across Maine this week to highlight the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan for use of $1 billion in discretionary federal relief funds allocated to Maine under the American Rescue Plan Act.