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The Boston Globe

Metro

yvonne abraham

Cut health bills for all

Ronn Garry Jr. believes in the state’s health care reform law. He likes the idea behind the groundbreaking 2006 legislation, that everybody should contribute to a system we all use. And as a matter of fairness, he wants everybody, especially his own employees, to have health insurance.

But the law Garry supports is kicking his behind.

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Garry is an owner of Tropical Foods, the independent Roxbury market that has anchored Dudley Square for 36 years. He has 70 employees, 45 of them full time. The 2006 law says he has to offer those full-time employees health insurance, cover at least 33 percent of their premiums, and get a quarter of them to take up his offer. Otherwise, he must pay a fine, called a Fair Share Contribution: $295 for every worker. The fine encourages employers to offer coverage, and helps fund insurance the Commonwealth provides for low-income residents who can’t get it through employers.

Fair enough. But Garry has a problem. Even though he offers health insurance and pays 50 percent of his employees’ premiums, he can’t get 25 percent to sign up. Two workers short of the threshold, he has been fined: About $29,000, including thousands in penalties.

His broker told him this would happen in 2007, when only 10 employees were taking his insurance. Others were on spouses’ plans, including Garry himself, whose municipal worker wife has a great, low-cost plan. Some were on MassHealth, which is free. Still others said they couldn’t afford insurance or didn’t need it.

You’re going to have to pay the fine no matter what, the broker said. Might as well stop offering insurance altogether. And for two years, Garry did just that. “But then I said: ‘You know what? This isn’t fair,’ ’’ Garry says.

Offering his employees insurance was the right thing to do. He extended it to part-timers, but that only made his numbers look worse.

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Try as he might, he couldn’t convince workers to forgo other insurance. He couldn’t cajole uninsured workers who use emergency rooms for free care to pay $30-a-week premiums.

As Garry puts it: “How do you compete with free?’’

About 1,000 of the state’s roughly 166,000 employers paid the Fare Share contribution in 2010.

Some of them deserved the fine and more. But shouldn’t we make a distinction between employers of good faith who can’t get employees to sign up for health insurance, and the scofflaw employers who simply won’t? It isn’t right that Garry is paying the same penalty as the bad guys.

“It’s about trying to do the right thing, and not being whacked for [it],’’ Garry says. “It’s almost like they want me to cancel my insurance.’’

He’ll keep offering it, for now. But he won’t get more takers, because his plan these days is no great shakes. It meets the state’s standards, but subjects workers to out-of-pocket expenses of up to $5,000. Tropical used to offer better coverage. But this market, like all small businesses, has been walloped by giant, double-digit premium increases in recent years. Those increases put the old plan out of reach, for Garry and his workers.

Garry deserves a break here. Couldn’t the state hold him to account only for the workers who don’t have insurance at all? Then again, how does the state relax the rules for Garry without also relaxing them for the jerks who flout the law?

The real solution here (apart from a single-payer system, which is not likely), is to lower the cost of health care for everyone, so that Garry and his workers can afford excellent, employer-provided health insurance.

Until then, Garry will be stuck - fined if he doesn’t do the right thing, and fined if he does - between a law he admires and a hard place.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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