Small business is suddenly playing a big role in negotiations over health care. Supporters and opponents of various plans to overhaul the system are all trying to paint themselves as champions of mom and pop entrepreneurs.
"You know,small business is going to be key to this debate. And they're going to be a critical component if you want to get health care reform done," said Michelle Dimarob of the National Federation of Independent Business.
The federation's members are not happy with the health care bill taking shape in the House this week — especially its requirement for all but the smallest employers to provide health insurance or pay a penalty.
"Our phones have been ringing off the hook this week, particularly from our small business owner members," Dimarob said. "They are very, very upset and very angry about the approach Congress has taken."
The Democratic National Committee quickly lined up its own panel of small business owners to defend the House plan. And President Obama himself talked up the benefits for small business while campaigning Thursday in New Jersey.
"Health care reform is about that small business owner from right here in Jackson, N.J., who told us he employs eight people," Obama said. "He provides insurance for all of them. But his policies are going up 20 percent every year."
Obama argued the proposed legislation would help that small business owner by controlling runaway health care costs.
New Jersey print shop owner Joe Olivo said he was skeptical.
"I mean, he says that, but I don't see any evidence that it's going to cost us less," Olivo said.
Olivo employs about 35 people at his company, Perfect Printing, in Moorestown, N.J. Although he provides health insurance for all of them, he might not meet the standard of the House mandate, because his plan carries a high deductible and does not include workers' family members.
"We've crafted plans that fit our company, based on the demographics of our individuals. And it works," he said. "For them to start mandating certain solutions, I cannot see anything good coming of that."
The proposed employer mandate has also drawn a mixed reaction from big businesses. The nation's biggest — Wal-Mart — surprised fellow retailers a couple of weeks ago when it came out in support of the requirement. Wal-Mart was once criticized for not doing enough to insure its own workforce. But the company now provides coverage for more than half its employees. And Wal-Mart is now urging other businesses do the same.
"Wal-Mart is for shared responsibility," said spokesman Greg Rossiter. "Our belief is that not everyone can make the same contribution. But everyone must make some type of contribution."
The National Retail Federation quickly distanced itself from Wal-Mart, urging members to speak out against an employer mandate. Retailers in general provide health insurance for only about 45 percent of their workers, and the federation says in these tough times, they can ill afford to do more.