Bookseller's Healthcare Woes Garner National Spotlight

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As lawmakers in Congress continue the debate over how to solve the national healthcare crisis, the healthcare concerns of independent booksellers and small businesses are drawing the attention of the national media. On May 5, a front page article in the Business Section of the New York Times detailed the health insurance challenges and concerns of Jeff Levin, owner of Varney's Book Store in Manhattan, Kansas. The article, "Small Businesses' Premiums Soar After Illness," was written by Milt Freudenheim.

The Times article chronicled how, after a long battle with emphysema, an employee at Varney's died ... but for the bookstore's health insurer, "her legacy lived on." A year later, in 2002, the health insurance company increased Varney's premiums by 28 percent, despite that "most of the other three dozen employees were significantly younger and healthier than their departed colleague, who had been in her mid 70s. And Varney's premiums continued to climb." The Times noted that Levin has taken several steps in an effort to lower his premiums. He has offered employees free gym memberships and personal days, because the store's health insurance carrier, Blue Cross Blue Shield, said they could possibly reduce Varney's premiums "if the fitness efforts actually resulted in lower medical expenses."

In a telephone interview with Bookselling This Week, Levin noted that his health insurance woes are part of a much larger story. "This is far bigger than immigration," Levin stressed. "Day in, and day out, there are a lot of Americans without health insurance."

In hopes of finding a solution to the issue, Levin has become involved in state government. As a member of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Levin served on a health insurance committee under present Governor Kathleen Sebelius when she was Kansas' state insurance commissioner. He is also a member of the Kansas Business Health Policy Committee, which was created by the Kansas legislature with the intent of providing small businesses (with fewer than 50 employees) access to health coverage at an affordable rate.

"I have a small business and some personal stories, and I am very proactive," Levin said. "I am asking, How can we approach this? -- because the status quo is getting worse and worse and worse."

One possible solution, Levin noted, is Association Health Plans (aka Small Business Health Plans), which would enable small businesses to band together across state lines through bona fide trade and professional associations to purchase affordable health packages for themselves and their employees. "I am a proponent of AHPs -- state lines are artificial borders," he said. "To be competitive, we have to get rid of the old paradigm. Association Health Plans would allow us to pool our resources better."

Since publication of the Times article, Levin said he's received notes of encouragement and heard from other people with similar health insurance issues. --David Grogan