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Mr. Houser Goes to Washington

Portland Small Businesses Lobby for Health Care Reform

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JIM HOUSER IS TAKING a two-day break from fixing cars to fly to Washington, DC, this week, where he'll be asking Oregon's legislators to support the president's vision for health care reform. Co-owner of the Hawthorne Auto Clinic since 1983, Houser spends $80,000 a year to provide insurance for nine of his 15 employees and their families.

"This is a very high-skilled industry," Houser explains, gesturing to a wall of his mechanics' framed photographs and their maintenance certificates above a fish tank in the waiting area of his business on SE Hawthorne and 43rd. "So one of the things you do is keep your skilled employees here, and that means keeping them healthy and looking after their families."

Houser's idealistic approach to human resources may have been realistic in 1983, but lately he's been struggling to cope with rocketing premiums.

"In the '80s and '90s the cost of health insurance would rise three to five percent every year," he says. "But starting in 2001, it went up six or seven percent a year, then 10 to 12 percent, then two years ago it went up 18 percent. And all of a sudden what was just another expense really gets your attention when you need to buy new tools and equipment and do repairs to a 100-year-old building."

The high cost doesn't cover Houser's interns from Mount Hood Community College, either. When one student got a knee injury and had to go on the Oregon Health Plan recently, he ended up dropping out of Houser's sponsorship program. "We invest in these students, we sponsor them and put time and effort into them, and to lose one over something like that seemed a waste," Houser says.

Having had enough, Houser, along with 60 small business people nationwide, flew to the nation's capital on Tuesday, June 23, to lobby for a national public health insurance option like the one being proposed by President Barack Obama.

Right now all of Oregon's Democrats support Obama's public insurance option, with the aim of providing competition for private health insurers to "keep them honest."—all except Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who became the focus last week of a national advertising campaign funded by Healthcare for America Now ["Why Not, Wyden?" News, June 11].

Houser is not the only Portland small business owner anxiously hoping for Obama's reforms.

"I don't think my story is such a sob story," says hair stylist Karen Friedman, who works as an independent contractor at a salon in Northwest Portland. "Other people have it much worse. But it's a typical story."

Friedman paid $531.66 for basic health insurance last month—that includes prescription coverage for her migraines—through PacifiCare. Next year, Friedman turns 50, and will be paying $757.73 a month. When she turns 55, it will be $917.75 a month, at the current rates.

"There's no way I can afford this," she says. "I'm making it, but I don't make all my expenses in a month. My clients, my Republican clients, I love to tell them what I pay in health insurance. Their eyes just bug out of their heads."

Friedman continues to invest in health coverage, unlike most of her fellow hair stylists. One of her coworkers, a single mother who smokes, has had a cough for 18 months but refuses to go to the doctor because she doesn't have insurance, Friedman says. "I keep joking that we should take up a collection."

Meanwhile Amanda Lerch and Jared Wilson, who co-own The Maiden on SE Morrison, say they feel guilty about being unable to afford health insurance for their 10 employees at a total of $900 a month.

"One of our employees tripped and fell on the panini grill," says Lerch. "She burned her arm really badly, but I don't think she went to the doctor.

"I felt horrible about that, because obviously it's my panini grill," Wilson adds.

Wilson, Lerch, Friedman, and Houser are among hundreds of small business people in Portland identified by Main Street Alliance organizer Richard Pressici, who is also making the trip to DC. The question for Pressici is whether America's top politicians are really interested in a small business perspective on health care. "Or are they just saying that?"

"I've been involved in local charity work and politics, but I never thought about doing anything on a national level—from a local level you don't have much impact," Houser explains, when asked why he's making the trip. "But Obama's chosen to push this so early in his administration and with all this political capital. I've never been so hopeful that something might actually be accomplished.

"It all just seems so close, so possible," he continues. "That I might actually make a difference."

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