The Health Care Tales of Two Businesses

In November, I had an opportunity to travel to Montana. There, former intern Matt Gunther and I embarked on a “storytelling road trip.” 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. Over and over, people laid out their lives and their hopes for reform.

One such person was busi¬ness owner Aimee McQuilkin. Her clothing boutique is just down the street from the Center’s Missoula office. We sat down amidst stylish boots and bags and spoke with McQuilkin about why she thinks it’s smart business sense to provide her employees with health insurance. “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.”

She’s able to afford it 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 available to small businesses. It continues to roll out with the Affordable Care Act.

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 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 Gehrig’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 my traveling companion Matt Gunther.

Touring around Montana 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.