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Greater Portland small business owners lobby in D.C. for health-care public option

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Greater Portland small business owners lobby in D.C. for health-care public option

PORTLAND — A dozen local business owners traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to discuss health-care reform and to offer their support for a public option.

Dean Powers, director of the Maine Small Business Coalition, said the group was expected to meet Tuesday with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Small Business Administration Administrator Karen Mills, who will hold a briefing with them and other business owners from around the country on the impact of health-care reform. They also had a meeting scheduled with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine.

Powers said this is the second attempt at a meeting with the senators, who have been too busy to meet with the group.

He said the business owners are traveling together as part of the MSBC because they feel alienated and not represented by chambers of commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business.

"We feel those organizations are not speaking to the business owners of Maine, and they have a significant voice," he said. "We are going to Washington to support a strong public plan option and want the voice for the small business owners of Maine to be heard."

The group will have about 15 minutes to speak individually – about one minute per person – but Powers said they will try to make the most of the time they are allotted.

"We have people with us who have long-term experience with our organization and people who can speak eloquently from the heart," Powers said.

George Rubino, a world-renowned bow maker, is one of the business owners attending the meeting. He lives in Pownal and owns Rubino Bows, where he teaches his craft, creates custom made bows for string instruments, and rehairs and repairs bows for customers.

"As a group, our goal is to show support for the public option," Rubino said. "Personally, as a sole proprietor, it is an opportunity for me to express my feelings and views."

Rubino said as the sole owner of Rubino Bows the cost of health care, as it is structured now, is too expensive.

"I am an advocate for affordable health care and expect to pay my fair share, but how it set up now is inequitable," he said.

As a small business owner with no "power in numbers," he said, he doesn't have access to the high-volume discounts that other businesses can receive.

"Being a part of this group of business owners and being involved with this organization is the first time I have felt empowered with a group of people with a variety of backgrounds who are sharing the same business pursuits," Rubino said.

In addition to Rubino, a lobsterman from Cape Elizabeth, a florist from Yarmouth, an auto mechanic, a child-care provider and a baker will attend the meeting in Washington.

Powers said because these businesses are small, it makes it challenging for them to get health insurance for themselves or their employees. He said the business owners can't risk starting their own businesses without heath care, and employees don't want to work for those who can't afford to give them the insurance.

"It's like playing Russian Roulette with safety issues and illnesses," he said.

Another group member, Jim Amaral, owner of Borealis Bread in Portland, Wells and Waldoboro, has about 65 employees. He said during the past 16 years he has been in business, it has become more and more difficult to keep up with health care costs.

"Health care costs have been killing us, especially over the past five years," Amaral said.

He said his employees used to pay about $10 a week in health care costs, but now the cost has risen to more than $40 a week. He said he used to be able to afford to pay 70 percent of his employees' health-care costs and 30 percent for his employees' family care. Now, he cannot afford to cover the cost of family care, and can only pay 50 percent of the employee health-care costs.

"In addition, costs to the employees are rising, making it difficult for individuals to pay for their own care," he said. "Not one of our employees are paying to cover their own families because it would cost them $800 a month."

He said there are perhaps 12 employees who have health care.

"Health care in the food industry has never been great," he said. "But the only way to keep highly trained and qualified managers and employees is to offer affordable heath care."

Powers said small businesses create jobs and strengthen communities but are suffering because of the high costs and unreliable coverage in the health care system.

"We want to show them that we will stand together and that our opinion matters," he said. "We will fight for our beliefs and our small businesses."

Amaral said it is a testament to the importance of the discussion that 12 local business owners would take two days away from their businesses to stand up and express their concerns about health care.

"I feel we can make a significant difference and am happy we have the opportunity to voice our opinion," he said. "They need to consider the public option and need to hear from businesses that are struggling to keep up with health care costs."

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net