Jobs, Sales Heading Up Health Care The Spoiler

April 8, 2002
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GRAND HAVEN — Businesses in the Grand Haven-Spring Lake area are feeling better about their prospects for the year, according to the results of a recent survey, as the national economy shows signs of recovery. The survey responses, however, also indicate a dramatic increase in concern over health care benefit costs.

Forty-two percent of the firms responding to an annual membership survey conducted by The Chamber of Commerce are expecting sales increases for 2002, with only 11 percent anticipating a decrease. A similar percentage, 44 percent, reported sales increases during 2001, with an equal amount reporting lower annual sales last year.

Thirty-three percent of the respondents expect their employment levels to increase during 2002, with just 4 percent forecasting a decrease in their workforce. Twenty-nine percent of the businesses responding to the survey reported lower employment levels in 2001, while 40 percent added staff.

Since this year’s survey was the first time the organization included questions that sought to gauge economic sentiments, chamber President Joy Gaasch doesn’t have any data with which to compare results. Still, she sees a clear indication locally of a growing confidence in the U.S. economy through 2002.

“There’s a sense out there of optimism that things are starting to turn around,” Gaasch said. “There are a lot of good things going on and people are beginning to sense that.”

About 10 percent of The Chamber’s 600 member businesses returned the annual survey, which seeks opinions on the organization’s services and members’ views and concerns on a variety of topics. The Chamber, which conducted the survey in February, uses the results as part of its annual strategic planning process.

The results come from a cross-section of businesses representing the manufacturing, retail and service sectors.

While showing optimism about the economy, respondents were far less enthusiastic about their burgeoning health care costs.

Sixty-two percent rated the cost of health insurance as highly important to the community’s economic vitality, second only to business and industry retention at 64 percent. The access and availability of health insurance was rated as highly important by 44 percent of the respondents.

Health care, as a general topic, received a high sense of importance from just 23 percent of the respondents to The Chamber’s survey a year ago.

The heightened sense of the issue’s importance, driven by double-digit increases in health insurance premiums in recent years, means The Chamber needs to begin investigating the issue and become more proactive, Gaasch said. One idea being pursued in the possibility of extending to Ottawa County a program in Muskegon that leverages Medicaid money to offer low-cost, basic health coverage to previously uninsured small businesses, Gaasch said.

The findings in The Chamber’s survey mirror those of a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that two-thirds of small businesses nationally are dissatisfied with the cost of health care and health insurance. One-third of the small businesses in the Kaiser Family Foundation survey indicated they are likely to pass on rising insurance costs to employees.

Large annual increases in health premiums show no sign of easing anytime soon.

The Chamber of Commerce, for instance, has been told to expect increases of 15 percent to 24 percent for health coverage for its staff, Gaasch said.

Elsewhere, The Chamber survey found surprising support for some sort of public transportation link with Muskegon. Sixty-five percent of the respondents indicated they would favor having the public transit services in Grand Haven and Muskegon discuss possibilities for working together to provide transportation to and from work, health care visits and recreational facilities.

The results to that question are indicative of an increasing sense of business taking more of a regional and cooperative approach to issues, Gaasch said.

“People are finally beginning to say, ‘Let’s look at opportunities that serve us all,’” she said.           

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