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Jennifer Watts Hoff

More than 10 years ago, I began to dream of opening my own grant-writing company. I made notes of the "pros" and "cons" of taking this risk. At the top of the "cons" — losing my family's health insurance. I tucked the papers away in my desk, but I still held onto my dream.

Fast forward to January 2009. I was four months pregnant and decided to participate in the SpringBoard business development program (predecessor of Co.Lab). Over four months, I worked with a business coach, wrote a business plan and became confident I could make it happen. But the health insurance fear was even more prevalent as I awaited the arrival of my daughter.

Before the Affordable Care Act was fully implemented, I finally mustered the confidence to leave my full-time job in May 2010 to pursue my dream of starting a business. I applied for health insurance, but the insurer included a "rider" that exempted it from covering pre-existing conditions. I was appalled this was legal. Three weeks later, my husband was offered a new job with health insurance, so we never had to take on the restrictive policy. We were lucky. And I could move on to realize my dream of creating and building a company in Chattanooga.

As lawmakers meet to consider the repeal and replacement of the ACA, they need to consider the impact on the small business community, which drives innovation and economic development across Chattanooga, our state and nation.

As a small business owner with fewer than 50 employees, I am exempt from the mandate to provide health insurance for my employees, as are about 96 percent of businesses in the U.S. So why do I care? Because of the ACA, individuals like me, who want to shift careers or start a new company, know they are protected under the ACA and won't face discrimination for pre-existing conditions or the threat of an insurer dropping them if a serious health condition develops. Also, it is because of the ACA's insurance marketplace that coverage has been more accessible for millions of Americans not covered by their small business employer. This helps remove a burden faced by many small employers trying to attract talented employees with limited health benefits. The ACA also provides tax credits to small businesses, allowing them the option to provide competitive benefits and attract top talent critical for growth.

While there is always room for improvement, Congress should be detailed about how it plans to improve what we have — and pass it — before dismantling what so many currently depend on. A repeal of the ACA, without an adequate replacement that retains key protections, will stifle innovation by forcing individuals to stay in jobs simply to keep health insurance, draining the talent pool for small businesses and innovators who could have a dramatic impact on our nation's economy.

I love Chattanooga. Our entrepreneurial community is one of the best in the nation and has provided me with support through SpringBoard, the Chamber's INCubator, The Edney Innovation Center and the NextLevel program. My company has helped raise more than $27 million for nonprofit and educational institutions in the region, funding programs that have created dozens of jobs and affecting thousands of lives.

When I think back to 2010, I know that without my husband taking a new job that provided health insurance and without the ACA protections implemented in 2014, I most likely would have had to find a new job and let my dream die. I'm glad I didn't — and I don't want other entrepreneurs to face the same tough decision.

Jennifer Watts Hoff is founder and president of Skye Strategies in Chattanooga. Contact her at jenwattshoff@gmail.com.

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