If there's one word to characterize how job seekers and observers view the Affordable Care Act's effect on the employment market this year, it would be "anxiety." Despite the intent of Obamacare and the professionals who speak favorably about the idea of universal healthcare coverage under ACA, people confronting it are distraught, skeptical and downright angry.
"Small businesses are getting beat up," according to Joe C., a financial industry professional in Montgomery County, Pa., who teaches a course on commercial finance. His students, many of whom run healthcare companies, are adopting a "hold steady and let's see how it plays out" approach to ACA. Many companies, including his own, are shifting their healthcare coverage options for employees to high-deductible plans with no co-pay options -- meaning the employee pays everything out-of-pocket.
It's not academic
It's not just an academic issue that he addresses in his classes. In the job market himself in the past couple of years, Joe went from one large banking institution that offered different health plan choices to another large corporate bank that provides coverage more characteristic of the current era -- a single high-deductible plan.
"The co-pays really don't matter because the deductibles are now so high that people just stop going to the doctor unless they have to," he says.
Not everyone agrees with that view.
"The new law at least enables some people to have health coverage for the first time ever," notes Carlton M., an IT business analyst now working for a major corporation in Lehigh County, Pa.
"That has to be considered a step forward," he says, especially after years and years of failed government plans to adopt universal coverage. Carlton added he believes the law is a positive change because the government exchange will free up small businesses that don't want to get involved in providing coverage. Still, finding small companies that embrace that view is extremely difficult.
Patricia Zwick of Toms River, N.J., has watched her business of marketing branded items and promotional novelties for corporations go from providing more than $300,000 in annual income to mere subsistence -- forcing her to look for work again.
I think nationwide we're going to become a part-time job market," she states, acknowledging the economic hardship started years ago but maintaining ACA will aggravate it.
"The new law has created a caste system really," according to Zwick, who points to reports that some hospitals will turn away those who obtain the lowest level of coverage offered under the government exchange plan.
Mark H., an Ocean County, N.J., resident and veteran media relations and corporate communications professional for more than 25 years, expressed similar reservations.
"I find a lot of people who are working as consultants, contractors or temporary positions of 30 hours a week or less, he says." Ironically, he claims, many of the people he knows who have steady jobs are small business people and contractors who've had their own businesses with established clientele but appear to be holding the line with modest or slim growth,
When coverage changes don't make sense
In Zwick's case, she felt the impact of ACA well before its actual implementation. Her health insurance company raised her premium about a year ago from $325 to $425 a month. Fearing the worst, as she read widespread reports that healthplans would end up dropping policyholders and/or raising premiums, Zwick had cataract surgery and a hip replaced, spending less than $800 total combined out of pocket. Following these procedures, and just months away from the new law taking effect, the same insurer offered her a new plan that would now cost $800 a month for similar medical coverage but would strip her of vision coverage in favor of maternity care, something that Zwick, with her child-bearing years already behind her, cannot possibly benefit from.
Frustrated, Zwick did research on the government exchange options, finding that the most affordable plan would cost her $630 a month, nearly double what she was spending 18 months before, but with a deductible that would now be an exorbitant $7,000. "Imagine, let's just say I actually needed maternity care. I'd have to spend out of pocket first the same amount that it would cost to cover having a baby. So in theory, a mother would spend what the plan is supposed to cover" before a single dollar of benefits would kick in.
As a sole proprietor, Zwick believes that many of the self-employed and smaller employers won't be able to take on the hardship of trying to provide coverage for their employees and will find it easier to just go work for someone else, but wonders if there will be any decent opportunities that offer anything beyond part-time hours.
"It would not surprise me if the impact of the new law does nothing to address the roots of the problem," says Mark H, who explains that no matter what, people will continue to struggle to maintain economically viable lifestyles and find ways to pay for healthcare. In Mark's case, at one point, while he was unemployed and his teacher were on the verge of losing coverage, they learned that a prescription that her plan was covering previously for a treatable form of cancer would have cost her $3,000 a week; fortunately, her coverage remained intact during her illness, which has now gone into remission, enabling the couple to survive a period in which she was between teaching jobs. In theory, Mark says he and his wife would have had to bear the full cost to pay for these drugs under the typical government exchange plans.
As a veteran communications professional consistently unable to attract an offer in his preferred line of work, Mark has been forced to work in a theme park snapping pictures and approaching patrons in an effort to sell them individual shots and photo packages. It is not work he finds at all enjoyable or financially rewarding, but he does it to pay bills. "Clearly, this is not a good market for professionals in their 50s and over and employers would rather hire someone younger and pay them less," Mark states.
The new law... has to be considered a step forward
Jeff Shadle, a Philadelphia area resident and Black Belt operations professional and project manager who has advised many companies on how to improve productivity and efficiency, reports going on interviews where the organizations he applied to said that they might take up to 4 months to make a decision. Employers are delaying because they are ambivalent about the prognosis for the economy and the impact of the new healthcare law on costs and have often resorted to hiring at vastly more modest salary levels, sacrificing experience in favor of savings dollars, according to Shadle. "There's a big difference in what companies advertise they are seeking for versus the skill and experience level that they actually hire at," he says, noting that there's a "little bit of age discrimination out there."
Shadle states that the job market is better than it was in the post-crash days of late 2008, 2009 and 2010, but not dramatically improved. Because he often finds that employers are hiring at experience levels far below what they post for, Shadle has removed a lot of experience from the bottom of his resume and has been told by recruiters that everything that's more than 20 years removed is "irrelevant."
Ancillary impacts of the new law
One of the only professionals who appeared optimistic about the potential of job growth directly attributable to the implementation of Obamacare is a veteran pharmaceutical salesperson now working in the telecommunications industry in a business development role. "Obamacare has actually helped protect and strengthen pharmaceutical patents," says Donald D, hoping this may help create more opportunities for professionals like himself wishing to return to the drug industry.
Perhaps reflective of all of the confusion of what the implications of the new law mean for business, it's true that the pharmaceutical industry stands to benefit, though not for reasons having anything to do with patent changes. Actually, the vast expansion in healthcare coverage due to mandatory enrollments is expected to result in higher prescription use among impoverished populations, and according to a report by Forbes (http://onforb.es/1cKimaX) will generate an additional $10 billion to $35 billion in pharmaceutical industry profits over the next 10 years. In that sense, it strengthens the money-making potential companies can squeeze out during patent-protected years but not due to any lengthening in the patents themselves.
Small businesses are getting beat up.
Intriguingly, while it's unclear what the exact impact of Obamacare will be on the job market, Donald D notes that perhaps all the need for sensitive patient information to be communicated via text, email and through the Internet -- something that the new law has undoubtedly intensified -- has created opportunities in his industry. Mobile technology providers are now marketing programs that enable patient-related messages, including prescription orders, to be texted with encryption protection, which is helping companies that do offer coverage to their employees to ensure confidentiality and remain HIPAA compliant.
While he continues to find the process of finding his next full-time position to be drawn out with no clear end in sight, Shadle operates a property management company and finds that many contractors are operating with "skeletal crews." He notes, "In some cases, these contractors are carrying far less workers than necessary to do the job" and both deadlines and work quality get compromised.
Whether it's increased business for mobile application companies or downsizing in small business work crews, the impact of the new law is incalculably hard to accurately measure. It will take time to know for sure whether the overall effect will dissipate or simply aggravate the nation's "anxiety" not just about healthcare, but about the U.S. economy as a whole.
Editor's note: Due to employer restrictions on talking to media, some of those quoted for this article asked the reporter only to use their first names or for their company affiliations not to be disclosed.