Katherine Georger's law practice has always involved a lot of business employment and health care work, but lately those issues have been absorbing most of her time.
And she's not alone. With complicated new health insurance regulations fast approaching, employers are confused and nervous about what it means to them. And those companies are turning to their lawyers for help.
"I'm getting lots of calls from potential clients and current clients who are trying to comply, but they're not sure how the regulations apply to them," says Georger, an associate at Boise's Holland & Hart. "Maybe 50 percent of my time lately has gone toward responding to questions or doing presentations" about the ramifications of the health care reform law.
Kevin West, an attorney at Parsons Behle & Latimer who specializes in employment and health care, says he's been getting some questions, but for many companies, "I frankly don't know if they've come to grips with all the issues yet."
Companies that are inarguably large or small know that the new "shared responsibility" rules apply - or don't apply, in the case of little firms - to them. But under the law taking effect Jan. 1, any company that has 50 or more full-time equivalent employees must provide health insurance for them or pay penalties. And those companies have to notify their workers of their health insurance options by Oct. 1.
That leaves many companies wondering whether their part-time, seasonal, temporary and variable-hour workers, added in with the traditional full-timers, add up to the equivalent of 50 people who work 30 hours a week or 130 hours per month, she says.
"There are some inconsistencies in the regulations, and there are regulations that are coming out virtually every day," Georger says. "I check the Federal Register every day."
West says now is a key time for companies to take a hard look at how the FTE rules would apply to them, since they'll be looking back at averages before the new law kicks in.
"Employers on the edge are going to want to start the planning process today, to determine whether they want to be above or below the cap," he says.
Last year corporate clients across the nation spent $5.72 billion on legal advice for regulatory matters, including health care, and the market is projected to grow to $6 billion this year, the Wall Street Journal reported June 17.
"The overall demand for legal services remains soft," the Journal reported, but "some law firms are beefing up their health care groups" with new hires.
Georger says Holland & Hart has brought on more attorneys in recent months, especially in the areas of health care and employee benefits. But, she says, "it would be a stretch to say that health care reform alone is the single motivating force."
West, past chairman of the Idaho State Bar's health law section, says he hasn't seen a push to hire new attorneys or support staff to deal with health care reform-related issues, but "once the law actually hits and its full impact is felt, that will happen."
In the June/July issue of the Idaho Bar Association's Advocate magazine, Hawley Troxell partner Bret Busacker and attorney Bret Clark describe some of the pitfalls of employee categorization, including employers incorrectly classifying employees as independent contractors not eligible for benefits.
"This problem is particularly acute for large employers that believe they have complied with the shared responsibility requirements by offering major medical coverage, but fail to provide coverage to misclassified employees or full-time employees that were improperly identified as non-full time," Busacker and Clark write.
In addition, the article continues, rules have stiffened so that employers could face penalties if their employees work more hours than expected and stray into FTE territory.
"In the past, an employer limiting coverage to full-time employees could exclude part-time employees based on the number of hours the employee was expected to work and disregard the actual number of hours worked," they write, but that is no longer true.
Georger helped Business Insider develop an interactive flow chart that is available on the Idaho Statesman's website to help employers figure out how the law affects them. A print version of the chart appeared in BI's June 11-17 edition.
Legal questions about the new law will not go away after the Affordable Care Act is fully in place, she says, adding it is likely to pose regulatory headaches and ambiguities for many years.
"It's really difficult for us to give advice on how all this will play out," she says.
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447