BY ANNE STANTON
TRAVERSE CITY — When it comes to health insurance, Tim Norkowski can't win.
He lacked insurance when he went to Munson Medical Center's emergency room two years ago with chest pain.
Now he's stuck with a $4,000 bill and no diagnosis to show for it. The tests were too pricey, he said.
The Affordable Care Act was supposed to help uninsured folks like Norkowski. Yet his company recently used the law to justify cutting his full-time hours to part-time, come May.
"I'm a little bit bitter about it," said Norkowski, 57, of Grawn, who is no fan of President Barack Obama, who spearheaded the law.
Companies with more than 50 full-time equivalent employees must pay health insurance for full-time staff in 2014 or a $2,000 fine per employee, minus the first 30.
Some Michigan employers are making pre-emptive moves before the law kicks in. But they don't have to, said Brett Williams of Michigan Consumers for Healthcare, a nonprofit.
Williams explains the new health care reform law to businesses around the state. Once companies learn the details, they realize the law may not have a big impact on them, he said.
Norkowski, 57, is employed by CSM Cleaning Services, a Grand Rapids company that provides janitorial services to Kingsley Area Schools. The cut in hours also will affect six co-workers, he said.
"They told us, when it does go into effect next year, the federal government can go back six months and fine them for the six months it wasn't in place," he said.
Not true, Williams said. The law does have a "look back," period that affects only new 2014 hires, who work a flexible, hourly schedule. An employer can collect up to 12 months of the new employee's work history to determine if he is part-time or full-time.
"They're stepping over a dollar to save a dime," said Williams.
Studies consistently show a healthier workforce means higher productivity and lower absenteeism, he said.
Steve Latimer, co-owner of CSM Cleaning Services, said the company is exploring its options and hasn't made a final decision on downsizing hours.
"To be honest with you, none of these laws and regulations are definitive," he said. "We can't make decisions based on something unknown, so we are looking at all options and letting our employees know."
The number of companies that will feel the ACA's impact isn't clear, as area agencies lack statistics.
But there is anecdotal evidence that residents are feeling the pinch.
Sandi Hill, a home health care worker, just saw her hours cut from full-time to 25 hours. She works for Integrity Home Health Care of Northern Michigan, the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce's 2011 Small Business of the Year winner.
Hill, 55, said she and her hourly coworkers had little notice their hours would be cut in mid-January. She earns $9.40 an hour, and the news was devastating. Hill said she is divorced, and temporarily supports her daughter, 28.
"I worked really hard to get caught up with the bills, and now I'm going to drop behind again unless I can find something else," she said.
Tammy Tarsa, Integrity's owner, did not return phone calls for comment.
Hill said she'll receive underemployment benefits, but they're not enough.
She is angry with the federal health care law, which she says hurts working poor the most.
"It isn't fair to us," said Hill, an L.P.N.
She also fears the government will fine her if she doesn't buy health insurance next year.
"She's not going to get fined," said Don Hazaert, director of Michigan Consumers for Healthcare. "The ACA requires you to purchase insurance if you can afford it. There are multiple waivers, and one is affordability."
Hazaert said the ACA will financially challenge the home health care industry with its narrow profits.
"That's not the case with Papa John's, who has been in the press lately about laying off people," he said. "... it would cost them 2 to 3 cents on a pizza to provide benefits."
There's a difference between employers who will truly struggle and those who exploit confusion to cut payroll, he said.
"That's deplorable from our perspective," Hazaert said.