In SF, the sky didn’t fall…

Restaurant owners–the biggest opponents to Healthy San Francisco–made broad predictions about the universal health care reform’s impact to the city. Now, after over a year of implementation, many of those owners are accepting the change, in more ways than one.

The Golden Gate Restaurant Association proclaimed all sorts of dire impacts in the employer contribution requirement was passed, and has pursued legal action against the law, even though they have been rejected by the full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. They are continuing to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, although it seems the restaurant community has just taken the changes in stride, as reported by Heather Knight at the San Francisco Chronicle

At the bustling French bistro Zazie in San Francisco’s Cole Valley, one dollar goes a long way. That’s how much owner Jennifer Piallat charges each customer to pay for health care for her 32 employees.

The dollars add up to about $11,000 a month – enough to provide Kaiser Permanente medical insurance, dental insurance and a 4 percent employer match on 401(k) retirement accounts. She said only 1 percent of her customers have complained about the surcharge. “And they were the 1 percent we didn’t want to come back anyway,” she said.

The Zazie experience is playing out at restaurants around the city, as most owners pass along the costs of city-mandated health care coverage to their customers – and say they’re delighted to finally be able to afford it. Most customers say they’re OK with paying extra.

But if it’s all going down as smoothly as a glass of Cabernet after a long day at work, why is the Golden Gate Restaurant Association asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the employer spending mandate – even asking Wednesday for an emergency injunction to block the program?

Why indeed? The sponsor of the bill, now-Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, is baffled. One theory is that even though it is going fine on the ground, national ideological interests are weighing in:

Deputy City Attorney Vince Chhabria said national groups could be pressuring the restaurant association to persevere in its case it to nip the issue in the bud before it expands elsewhere.

Otherwise, he said he’s mystified because restaurants profess to support the program. He has collected several cards handed out by restaurants explaining their surcharge for health coverage, almost all saying they’re proud to support this landmark program.

SF Supervisor Campos wrote the restaurants, asking them to drop the lawsuit:

“That restaurants make supportive statements about Healthy San Francisco, while simultaneously fighting in court to undermine this very program, raises questions about whether they are dealing with their customers in good faith,” he wrote.

Campos also implies in the letter that the varying surcharges raises questions about whether some restaurants are spending all the extra money on health care. Piallat, the owner of Zazie, said her experience of having money left over after charging $1 a customer tells her that restaurants with 4 and 5 percent fees are profiting.

“I think a lot of people are making money off of this deal,” she said. “Do the math.” Other restaurant owners interviewed by The Chronicle said that’s not true, especially as the recession means diners are spending less overall.

Piallat dropped her membership with the restaurant association after it asked members to contribute money to fund the lawsuit. She said that even if the association ultimately wins at the Supreme Court, she’ll keep the $1 surcharge on her menu.

“I plan to still keep the buck,” she said. “I’ll change the wording to say, ‘A dollar per person provides full benefits to our staff. Thank you so much.’ “

There is always the suspicion that some businesses might be using the opportunity of the law to pocket some change, but the question is whether they provide benefits. Piallat’s commitment to benefits is appreciated, but without the law, she might be undermined. The reason setting a minimum employer contribution is so essential is that those who want to provide coverage have to compete with those that don’t provide coverage. That’s why we feel it’s important to set a floor–whether a minimum wage, or a contribution to health care.

The key takeaway: health reform, including a meaningful employer contribution, has been implemented in San Francisco, and the dire predictions of opponents have yet to materialize. Meanwhile, more people are getting access to care, and there’s more stability for the health care system that all San Franciscans depend on. Some restaurants are charging a buck more, but many feel that’s change they can believe in.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.
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