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July 31, 2014

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Their stories heard on the Hill

Small-business owners go to D.C. to testify for reform

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COURTESY OF U.S. PIRG

Michael MacQuarrie, owner of a small business in Las Vegas, traveled to Washington to urge Congress and the White House to pass health care reform. Because of a preexisting condition, he has been denied coverage by insurance companies.

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From right, Small Business Administration Administrator Karen Mills, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, small-business owner Ken Brantley and White House Office of Public Engagement Director Tina Chen listen during a forum on health insurance reform Tuesday in Washington. One hundred small-business owners came to Washington to share their stories.

Michael MacQuarrie never cared for politics. Never had much faith in politicians. “I’m from Chicago,” he explains with a verbal shrug.

But here he was Tuesday in the Capitol and, later, at the White House — part of the lobby machine on health care reform.

MacQuarrie and other small-business owners had been summoned to share their stories and press for health care reform. With the insurance and pharmaceutical industries unleashing their thousands of lobbyists on the Hill, the pro-reform groups were firing back with stories from people like MacQuarrie to tell their side.

A 20-something gave a rousing speech about the difficulty in providing health care for his growing new company. A once-expectant father told a familiar story about his how his health insurance premium skyrocketed with news of his wife’s pregnancy.

The crowd was moved. The politicians who stood beside them in the stately room in the Capitol nodded with satisfaction.

It was a confluence of illness and financial misfortune that brought MacQuarrie to the Capitol.

Preexisting condition

Like so many before him, he came West to Nevada for the dry weather his doctor said would do him good. He has a lung condition, sarcoidosis, an immune system disorder — the same one that comedian Bernie Mac suffered from, he explains.

For nearly a decade he lived and worked in Las Vegas, appraising and inspecting homes during the housing boom, until suddenly the work came to an end. The bubble burst, the company he worked for went bust and in late 2007 he was out on his own.

A licensed structural inspector, he decided to start his own business. This year Desert Home Inspection Services was born.

He is looking to expand his business into energy audits, and is teaming up with a couple of other inspectors. Now comes the tricky part: getting health insurance for himself, his family and his potential employees.

MacQuarrie said he was denied coverage by insurance companies because of his preexisting lung condition.

When his job was cut and his COBRA coverage ran out, he and his family became among the nearly 500,000 residents in Nevada who the Kaiser Family Foundation’s statehealthfacts.org says are uninsured.

He and his wife knew it was dicey going without insurance, but he paid out of pocket for care and got discounts on the 15 pills he said he needs to take each day. They would get through this.

Unlikely lobbyist

Then, several months ago, his 17-year-old stepson experienced severe pain. After a few trips to the emergency room, he said, doctors told the family the teen needed immediate surgery to remove a tumor on his spine.

The operation was performed and MacQuarrie is now $150,000 in debt.

“There’s no way I can pay that,” said MacQuarrie, a quiet man who speaks slowly and thoughtfully. The calls from bill collectors are coming now. “Eventually, there’s going to be so much pressure I’m going to have to go into bankruptcy.”

A few months back a friend sent MacQuarrie a survey from Democratic Rep. Dina Titus — the Southern Nevada congresswoman has been collecting health care stories on her Web site and in letters to constituents. He filled one out.

Another survey came from Consumers Union, the nonprofit group that publishes Consumer Reports. He shared his story there, too.

A few days ago the consumers group called, asking if he would share his story in Washington. Consumers Union, along with Small Business Majority, Main Street Alliance and U.S. PIRG (the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups), was assembling 100 small-business owners from 25 states for a day on the Hill.

“I’m not too impressed with politics,” MacQuarrie said.

He boarded a plane and soon found himself standing with other small-business owners from across the country urging Congress to pass health care reform.

Personal, not political

Small-business owners have mixed views on health care reform.

Some oppose the proposed taxes to help pay for health care subsidies and the mandates that they provide health care for their workers or pay fines. Others, including many of those gathered on the Hill who have advocated for reform, say changes being considered by Congress would give them access to cheaper insurance premiums so they can provide health care to their workers at lower costs.

MacQuarrie spent all day Tuesday on the Hill. He stopped in to meet Titus. He stood at that spirited news conference in the Capitol. He joined another event with administration officials at the White House.

He did not speak publicly, but took it all in.

By day’s end he was headed to the airport.

He said he was leaving Washington with hope. This after months of believing his disease would “win.”

“I’m going to follow it more closely now,” he said of the health care debate. “For me, it’s not political, it’s personal. I need to be able to survive this and provide for my family.”

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