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For years, our elected officials in Washington have been promising that we will all have the opportunity to get affordable health care. But with premiums continuing to skyrocket – expected to climb an average of nearly 28 percent for Michiganders using the individual marketplace – affordable coverage has often remained out of reach. That is especially true for the 11 million Americans who work for or own small businesses.

I’m one of them. I own Aubree’s Flagstar, which operates five Aubree's Pizzeria and Grill restaurants and oversees five franchised locations across Michigan. As any small business owner will tell you, our people are our greatest asset. They work hard and they deserve the same affordable health care benefits that employees at large corporations receive. That is why I’ve worked to provide a legitimate health care solution that offers employees and families quality health insurance policies at an affordable price. It is finally here.

In June, the Department of Labor announced expanded access to health care coverage through Small Business Health Plans, or Association Health Plans (AHPs). This long overdue step levels the playing field for small businesses to negotiate insurance plan rates like large businesses have been doing for decades.

In Michigan, small businesses are fortunate to have U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, serving as an early advocate of AHPs. He has long recognized that giving small businesses the same negotiating tools doesn’t just benefit our employees – it benefits us all. My hope is other elected officials will support this practice because by doing so, they will be supporting Michigan’s small business community.

For small businesses and individual workers, this change comes not a moment too soon. Last year, the average single employee premium was $6,690 according to the Kaiser Family Foundation – up 133 percent since 2002. That cost per employee is simply unsustainable for most businesses, and it is no surprise that the number of small businesses offering insurance has decreased from 63 percent in 2006 to 56 percent in 2016. Now, by working together, small businesses and self-employed workers can strengthen their leverage and deliver better insurance rates to employees.

About half of all U.S. employees work for businesses with less than 500 employees, and many work for business with less than 50. This policy will have an especially big impact in the restaurant industry, where 90 percent of all businesses are small businesses. Here in Michigan, restaurants make up 10 percent of the state’s workforce, equaling more than 440,600 jobs. That number is projected to grow by 7.5 percent over the next 10 years, and policies like this one will ensure that we can attract top talent and fully support our growing teams.

In the restaurant industry, recruiting and retaining our team is one of the biggest costs of doing business. As the nation’s second largest private sector employer, we are proud to be able to offer first jobs and second chances to millions of Americans. And we need to have the ability to offer exceptional employee benefits to encourage folks to stay and grow their careers with us.

We believe that all our employees – and all Americans – deserve access to quality, affordable health care. That’s why we are committed to ensuring that each team member has access to health insurance coverage and a benefits structure that fits their needs, while maintaining our ability to provide more hours, increase hiring, and better serve our communities. Association Health Plans help restaurants and other smaller companies make good on that commitment.

Andrew French is president of Aubree’s Flagstar, and the treasurer and board member of the Michigan Restaurant Association.

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