A Tale of Two Businesses

I recently returned from Montana, where intern Matt Gunther and I spent a lot of time driving. We called it a “storytelling roadtrip”. We traveled the requisite long distances in this majority-rural state to talk with and listen to people. Health care was a hot topic that we discussed from living room to living room, over coffee, and in the middle of the pasture. People laid out their lives and their hopes for reform.

In honor of Rural Health Week, I’ll give a sneak preview of two of the videos resulting from the roadtrip. I call them “a Tale of Two Businesses.”

Just down the street from the Center’s Missoula office is a small clothing boutique called Betty’s Divine. We stopped in to talk to super-stylish owner, Aimee McQuilkin who offers health insurance to all six of her employees.

She’s able to do this in part because of a small business health care tax credit offered through a state initiative called Insure Montana. This program is the local equivalent of the Federal Healthcare Tax Credit currently available to small businesses and that continues to roll-out with the Affordable Care Act.

Aimee is an outspoken advocate for health care because she’s seen the benefits of providing insurance -- for her business and for main street Missoula.

“Hiring and high turnover is expensive in time and money, and being able to offer a good position with benefits really decreases my turnover.” And she said, “More people out there not spending on health costs out of pocket means more business for you.”

Three hours away and across the Continental Divide is Twin Bridges, Montana, home of Sweetgrass Rods.

Jerry Kustich is the co-owner of the shop that produces high-end bamboo fly-fishing rods. They actually import the raw material from a special bamboo grove in China and hand-make each rod in the town of 400 people. He employs six people in a beautiful sun-lit workshop.

When Matt first heard Jerry’s story, he said he was blown away by Jerry’s personal involvement with the health of his employees. Although he wants to provide insurance to his employees, he is unable to find an affordable plan because several of them have pre-existing conditions. In the meantime, he’s organized several fundraisers for his uninsured employees with medical expenses.

He also talked with us about his wife’s long battle with Lou Gerig’s disease and the high-deductible insurance plan that he says he was never able to use, despite decades of “paying in.”

Unlike Aimee, Jerry’s advocacy is driven by frustration. “After all I’ve gone through and after all the people I’ve seen struggling with it... the fear of what this disease means to their pocketbook. In America that shouldn’t be an issue,” he said.

But the good news is that in 2014 it will be illegal for insurance companies to deny somebody health insurance because of a pre-existing condition.

“The Affordable Care Act goes a long way in making health care possible for people who are already sick,” said rural organizing intern, Matt Gunther.

Touring around the state I was fortunate to see some of our health care organizing work in action. It was obvious that rural people and small businesses need more information about the new law and the changes that will make a difference in their lives. Our work is a start. Keep an eye out for videos about Jerry and Aimee on our website.