With the House nearing a critical health-care vote, construction is keeping a watchful eye on whether one controversial provision survives. That provision, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), would require small contractors to provide health coverage or pay a penalty. The language is in the health-care bill the Senate passed. If the House does not remove the provision in an anticipated “corrections” measure, it could become law.

House Speaker Pelosi is struggling to garner support for a ‘corrections’ bill.
House Speaker Pelosi is struggling to garner support for a ‘corrections’ bill.

Merkley’s proposal has split the industry. Groups such as the Associated Builders and Contractors and Associated General Contractors want to see the language removed; unions and their allies want to keep it in the final bill.

The provision would mandate that construction contractors with six or more employees and a payroll of at least $250,000 provide health insurance for their workers or pay a fine. For most other industries, the Senate-bill threshold that triggers coverage is 50 employees.

“We’ve heard rumors that they will take it out, but I’ll believe it when I see it,” says Geoff Burr, ABC vice president for government affairs. AGC also is working behind the scenes with lawmakers to nix the provision, says Jeff Shoaf, senior director for legislative affairs.

Unions and union-oriented contractors are seeking to retain the Merkley provision. “It is the right thing to do in terms of the industry, and it is good public policy,” says Stuart Binstock, CEO of the Finishing Contractors Association. Binstock says the vast majority of his association’s members have been providing health coverage to employees for years, and most are small firms. “This notion that small contractors can’t afford health care just doesn’t ring true from our perspective,” he says.

Even if Merkley’s language is deleted, non-union groups still oppose the Senate bill. They prefer to focus on cutting health-care costs through small-business or association plans and tort reform.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in Congress are concerned about whether they can pass a final bill at all. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at press time was trying to put together a “corrections” bill that fixes problems House members have raised about the Senate-passed measure.

Top Democrats have floated some possible options, including “reconciliation,” a process generally used for budget issues. The House would vote on the Senate-passed bill, then assemble a separate reconciliation package that makes the Senate bill more palatable to moderate Democrats and maybe some Republicans. Another possibility would be voting on a combination of a reconciliation bill and the Senate health-care measure. Republicans don’t like either idea and pledge to prevent the bill from becoming law.