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Watertown chamber secures $80,000 grant to launch community health program; to help businesses, consumers navigate Affordable Care Act

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The Greater Watertown-North Country Chamber of Commerce has received a grant to explain the Affordable Care Act to consumers and business owners in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.

Thanks to an $80,000 grant acquired this month from the Community Service Society of New York, the chamber will launch a community health program to offer free workshops and services in the three counties. It has hired a full-time community health advocate to run the 16-month program, which will help businesses and consumers find health care solutions that meet their needs. Filling that position will be Katrina L. Kapustay, who served for a year as a counselor for the North Country Procurement Technical Assistance Center program. Chamber staffers will go to Albany in March to complete training for the grant-funded program.

“This program will help small businesses navigate through the difficult Affordable Care Act compliances,” said Lynn M. Pietroski, CEO and president of the chamber. “We’re going to be educating small businesses on what they need for health insurance.”

The program’s services will be available to all consumers and business owners. One-on-one counseling will be offered to help small businesses develop health insurance plans, and the chamber will host educational events year-round in the three county area. Tentatively planned are 10 events in Jefferson County and five in both Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. The grant will pay for conferences and workshops.

“We have some ideas for events, but we’re also open to collaborating with different organizations to find out where we can assist them,” Mrs. Pietroski said. “For example, we might be able to form meetings to group small businesses together.”

The Community Health Advocates program has received federal funding since 2010, when the Affordable Care Act was signed into law. The act does not require small businesses to provide health insurance, but different incentives will be offered for those that choose to do so. The following benefits for small businesses of different sizes are outlined on the White House website:

n Businesses with fewer than 25 employees can get small-business tax credits for eligible businesses that choose to provide insurance to their employees. To qualify for a small-business tax credit of up to 35 percent (up to 25 percent for nonprofits), employers must pay average annual wages below $50,000 and contribute 50 percent or more toward employee health insurance premiums. Starting in 2014, this tax credit goes up to 50 percent (35 percent for nonprofits) and will be offered to qualified small businesses that participate in the Small Business Health Options Program exchanges.

n Businesses with 50 or fewer employees can join affordable insurance marketplaces. Starting in 2014, small businesses with generally 50 or fewer employees may purchase coverage through the Small Business Health Options Program exchanges, competitive marketplaces to which employers can go to find health coverage from a selection of providers. Open enrollment for the marketplaces will start Oct. 1 and Jan. 1 for those who are self-employed.

n Businesses with 50 or more employees fall under employer shared responsibility provisions. Starting in 2014, businesses with 50 or more full-time employees that do not offer affordable health insurance that provides a minimum level of coverage may be subject to an employer shared responsibility payment if at least one of their full-time employees receives a premium tax credit to purchase coverage in an insurance marketplace.

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