By Gary Kauffman
With his long gray beard, plain clothes and lack of electricity, David Yoder of rural Middlebury hardly seems like someone who would know much about government issues.
But Yoder, a member of the Old Order Amish church, has a keen interest in and a deeper knowledge of the workings of government than most people who are plugged into TV, radio and the Internet. Right now, Yoder’s interest is in H.R. 3200, the health care reform bill that has created heated debate throughout the country, both for and against.
Yoder and the rest of the Amish community have good reason to be interested and concerned. If H.R. 3200 passes into law in its present form, it would require all Americans to buy health insurance.
The Amish, though, discourage owning any insurance in favor of taking care of themselves and each other.
A clause in the bill likely would allow most Amish families an exemption from the insurance requirement, but the bill could still create sticky issues for the young people who have not formally joined the church.
Of even more concern for many is the affect the bill could have on Amish-owned businesses.
“It’s a huge concern for all Amish,” Yoder said. “It’s definitely not something we could comply with.”
Yoder serves as the Indiana state liaison for the Old Order Amish Steering Committee. The three-member national committee works with government officials to develop policies that are acceptable to all the Amish churches in the United States.
Yoder and 13 other state representatives meet with the steering committee twice a year and relay pertinent information to the Amish congregations.
Although they keep an eye on the pending legislation, Yoder said most of the committee’s work comes after a bill has passed.
“We don’t consider it our job to form law,” he said. “If it’s a law we can’t comply with we talk about it after the fact.”
While the religious conscience exemption clause in H.R. 3200 may protect most Amish individually, it probably won’t apply to Amish-owned businesses.
The bill would require all businesses, large or small, to provide some form of health insurance to their employees. Failure to do so would bring a penalty that for some businesses could run to tens of thousands of dollars.
Third District Congressman Mark Souder doesn’t think the individual exemption would extend to the business owners.
“I believe that any Amish business that works in a traditional commercial business will not be exempt from health care, especially since they use the emergency room,” Souder said. “The bottom line is that any group that chooses to use the public hospitals will have to come under helping to pay for them.”
Since Amish businesses typically employ mostly other Amish, few owners have offered health insurance.
Most small businesses, no matter who owns them, often operate on a thin bottom line, stretched even thinner recently by the recession. If forced to add to their expenses by providing health insurance, many owners see little choice but to increase their prices.
“If this is going to force employers to raise prices, or to go out of business, then what has the consumer gained?” asked Alvin Beechy, Jr., owner of AJ’s Furniture near Topeka.
Even those who already provide health insurance could feel an impact.
Kountry Wood Products in Nappanee is one of the largest Amish-owned businesses in the area, with 140 employees, about 60 percent of them Amish. Owner Ola Yoder said 80 of the 140 take part in the company’s insurance program, which currently pays for 50 percent of the health insurance premiums.
Under HR 3200, according to pages 146 and 147, employers would have to pay for 72.5 percent of an individual plan and 65 percent of a family plan. They would also have to pay a pro-rated premium for part-time employees.
“It’ll be pretty tough on our bottom line,” Yoder said.
“I see the administration of it being a bigger burden than anything,” added Perry Miller, vice president of operations at Kountry Wood Products.
Souder says there probably will be no compelling reason to give Amish business owners an exemption simply based on their faith.
“There probably will not be a way to exempt them any more than we can exempt Mennonites or others,” he said.
Souder said the Amish, along with other conservative groups, like Orthodox Jews, have been a topic of discussion already.
“The fundamental question is, ‘Is religious freedom trumped by a public health care program?’” he said. “There will be a religious liberty fight, but the Amish likely will be part of a bigger category than just themselves.”
Miller believes, though, that even if they receive exemptions, the Amish will be affected in the long run if the bill passes.
“Even if there is an exemption for us, health care quality will still go down,” he predicted. “Maybe not immediately, but in five or 10 years.”