If you asked Link Christensen to describe his political beliefs a couple years ago, he'd say he was a liberal, a social activist and an Obamacare supporter.
But today, things are less black and white for the small business owner, who operates Tennessee Awning Co.
He primarily employs people who sew awnings, canopies, tarps and industrial fabrics -- one of a small number of businesses in the Scenic City that employ needleworkers. They're not high-wage jobs, and it's not easy to just raise salaries when so many overseas competitors could do it for less.
Still, Christensen once supported Obamacare -- also called the Affordable Care Act -- because he likes to help people.
"I'm a left-leaning social activist," he said Wednesday at a Chattanooga chapter meeting of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which counted U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., and State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga, in attendance. "It sounded like a good idea to offer insurance to all the people in the country."
Christensen was originally concerned with patients who go to the emergency room for minor ailments instead of seeking a primary care physician and felt that Obamacare would allow people to stay healthier and remove perverse incentives that clog up hospitals across the U.S.
The only problem? He didn't realize how much it would cost him, and he's horrified by how much it's going to cost his employees.
"Some of those regulations about what the costs of my employees are going to be are horrendous, and I can't understand the math," he said. "Listening to the insurance providors and people providing webinars on how to figure out what our costs are going to be in this program, it's gigantically troublesome to me."
Not only does the math make his accountant shudder, Christensen is fairly certain that his employees are going to totally lose all coverage, he said. That's because the economical CoverTN program that he's currently using doesn't qualify under Obamacare's rules, and will disappear at the end of the year. CoverTN costs employees and Christensen about $60 each per month, but Obamacare would double that, placing it out of reach for those at the low end of the pay scale.
"It's not going to be any type of bargain for people who work for me," he said. "I'm concerned that my employees and others in that socioeconomic background are going to be left without any coverage because of the requirements of that program."
Christensen didn't vote for Fleischmann, who has opposed Obamacare at every opportunity. But the two were in agreement on Wednesday, as Fleischman eviscerated the law in his remarks to the group of business owners, and floated the idea that the law was designed from the start to fail people like Christensen.
"As Obamacare devolves and starts to fall apart, what do you get?" Fleischmann said. "This big-government largesse that is involved in Obamacare, my fear is that it's going to devolve into a single-payer system, and we really can't afford to let that happen."
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., warned earlier in the day that the Affordable Care Act will discourage some employers from adding more workers and encourage others to shift more workers from full-time to part-time positions.
Employers that don't provide employee health insurance and are adding staff are discouraged under the new law from having 50 or more employees on their staff, or risk being required to add health insurance benefits under ObamaCare, Corker said at a seperate event.
"We have a new term in America known as "49ers" where employers are trying to keep their staffs below 50 even when they would otherwise like to hire more workers," Corker said. "That is hurting American economic growth."
Other employers are likely to shift more full-time employees, who must be covered with health insurance under ObamaCare, to part-time status under 30 hours of work a week so they don't have to offer such costly benefits.
"I know that there is a tremendous burden, especially on small businesses," Corker said.
But with a Democratic-controlled Senate and Obama in the White House for another three and a half years, Corker said ObamaCare will remain the law of the land and its critics would do better to try to reform it than try repeatedly to junk it.
"I can count and know that the president has a veto pen so it's going to happen," Corker said. "When it happens, there are going to be some adverse impacts we've got to quickly adjust and figure out a much, much better way forward. We're all just sort of holding our breaths because of the effects we know it's going to have on our society."
Mark Longnecker, the chief financial officer at Chattanooga-based Southern Champion Tray, said he's worried about more than just higher workforce and out-of-pocket costs. Obamacare comes with a number of less known rules that could make it harder to fire bad employees, and could subject employers to lawsuits, he said.
"Employees who don't fit in our plan who have to go out and get insurance in an exchange, they're going to be granted whistleblower status, and then if we terminate him for insubordination, he has whistleblower status which puts him in another class," Loongnecker said. "Between Obamacare and taxation, we're just on a totally wrong path."
Longnecker, told the NFIB roundtable that he believes national politics have shifted away from supporting small business, toward something more akin to the bread and circuses of Roman times, and the bleak future that goes along with them.
"I understand your frustration--" Fleischmann said.
"--It's not frustration, it's anger," Longnecker interupted.
With many of the rules surrounding Obamacare still unclear, business operators like Longnecker and Christensen are working hard to learn the ropes before many of the requirements kick in. Longnecker hopes to learn more at a webinar today designed to explain more of Obamacare's rules and regulations, he said.
"I can't tell you how complicated it seems to be to figure out what the rates are agoing to be," said the former Obamacare supporter. "But I don't think balancing the budget should be done on the backs of people who have the least money. There's a limit to what people will pay for our product."
-- Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at email@example.com, or 423-757-6315