An effort started by the Connecticut Brewers Guild a year ago has reached an important political milestone. Last week, the state General Assembly’s Insurance and Real Estate Committee voted 16-3 in favor of sending a bill to legislators that would provide a new, cost-efficient way for beer-industry employees to get health insurance.
Under House Bill 7260, beer manufacturers, their employees, and employee dependents would be excluded from various provisions of the state's insurance statutes for small employer health insurance. If passed this summer, it would allow for the Guild to create its own pool of members to purchase plans and save as much as 20% on current rates, says Phil Pappas, executive director of the Connecticut Brewers Guild. The organization includes 64 of the state’s 85 breweries or breweries-in-planning, and Pappas estimates that around 1,000 employees from across Connecticut would sign up, which represents around 20% of the total industry workforce in the state.
Access to the plan would be for paying members of the Guild; Pappas says dues to join start at “a few hundred dollars.” As many breweries employ under five employees, the plan could offer one fewer thing for established and would-be entrepreneurs to worry about.
"I want the brewers to be brewing, not worrying about another cost that goes into running a business," Pappas tells GBH. “Yes, we all compete, but we assist with one another for what it takes to grow our businesses day-to-day. We’re a huge family.”
During the bill’s initial hearing with the Insurance and Real Estate Committee, the Connecticut Association of Health Plans was the lone dissenting voice to submit testimony. The group, which represents seven major healthcare providers (including Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Aetna, and Cigna), wrote that they’d caution the bill’s advancement because “removing a segment of the insured market could potentially have a negative impact on the remaining insureds that are left.”
“In addition,” the letter read, “it sets a precedent for other groups to seek a change in the statute to remove their group which would further erode the market.”
The bill is set to be part of the current legislative session, which ends June 5.
WHY IT MATTERS
For years, health insurance has been at the center of numerous political battles on a state and national level. Until the creation of the Affordable Care Act, lower-income individuals and families dealt with limited access to coverage, and continue to face uncertainty regarding future care options. These two factors cross over into beer, where low wages and a competitive marketplace can make it difficult to achieve financial—and ultimately medical—security. Even volunteerism can create situations in which businesses have little incentive to go above and beyond in terms of compensation.
This policy by the Connecticut Brewers Guild is a logical move that provides an additional benefit to its members, but it also represents a way to simply care for the human beings who work behind the bar and among stainless steel tanks.
“We provide all sorts of resources for our breweries, from attorneys to an HVAC guy to an electrician or someone who does [point-of-sale] systems,” Pappas says. “We wanted to at least offer another assist to our breweries, who are growing as quickly as possible.”
Perhaps most importantly, developments surrounding House Bill 7260 occurred the same week the Brewers Association, the Master Brewers Association of the Americas, and the Colorado Brewers Guild announced an alliance with state and federal agencies to promote brewhouse safety materials and training. That move had been in the works since 2015, when the BA appointed its first-ever safety ambassador.
What’s going on in Connecticut and Colorado are two sides of the same coin: with the potential of increased oversight for compliance, people across the beer industry are starting to step up. The oft-overlooked topic of safety and care for employees in and outside of the brewery is stepping out of the shadows.
Brian Lowell, an employee benefits consultant for ACBI Insurance, offered testimony for the state committee, noting that the Connecticut Brewers Guild is trying to offer a “sound alternative” for thousands of potential participants “who may be priced out of the individual market place altogether and may have otherwise forfeited the chance to have insurance coverage,” especially with the removal of the individual mandate from the Affordable Care Act.
According to the most recent numbers shared by the state guild, beer’s overall economic impact to Connecticut is almost $750 million annually. Keeping employees healthy and productive is an empathetic decision, of course—but it’s also an economic one.
“We have such a vastly growing industry that continues to boom,” Pappas says. “This is one way we can make sure it’s going to be a forever-lasting one.”