From my heart: It is a privilege to serve you!

JCR: Journal of Court Reporting, TheJCR.com, JCR WeeklyIn a Nov. 28 post on the Paradigm Reporting blog, Jan Ballman, FAPR, RPR, CMRS, reflects on how a trip with fellow firm owner Lisa DiMonte, RDR, CMRS, provided lessons on “overdelivering on high expectations.”

Read more.

Setting up a home office

Home office setup with a captains chair, desk, computer, etc.; the desk is in front of a wall of windows

© jnyemb

Many reporters and captioners are freelancers or small business owners, which often means working from home at least part of the time. There are many aspects to working from home, but first you need an actual place to work: a home office.

Picking the space

If you have the space, setting up a home office starts with picking the right room. “I have a third bedroom that is a dedicated office space,” said Angeli English, a freelancer in D’Iberville, Miss. “I picked the bedroom with French doors that open to a deck. Makes it very convenient to let our dog go in and out on the patio.”

Depending on the setup of your house, that space might mean a more nontraditional room, like a loft, where Sabrina Trevathan works. Trevathan, RDR, is a freelancer in Rawlins, Wyo.

If you’re in a smaller space and don’t have a whole room to dedicate, look for a good spot somewhere in your bedroom, living area, or other space. “I live in an apartment and the living/dining are one big room,” said Devora Hackner, a freelancer in Brooklyn, N.Y. “There’s a small alcove by the window that is the exact space designed for my desk.”

Legal videographer LaJuana Pruitt, CLVS, in Bradenton, Fla., found a unique opportunity for work space. “I have a side of a building that was a chiropractor’s office that was added to a home. I bought the home first, and when the chiropractor retired, his office became mine,” she explained. “Separate door, bathroom, parking, air conditioner, etc. This building is zoned professional. In 2007, I remodeled the entire building to be an office space. I took out the shower and added another bathroom where the shower was. I added French doors to the front room. The front room is big enough for a large conference table or video studio. I put in a butler’s pantry for a break area.”

After having the physical space picked out, the next step is making sure you have all the equipment, both for doing the job and for running the business.

First, furniture

Every professional interviewed for this article emphasized the need for a comfortable chair. “Invest in the best because you deserve it with how much you sit, and your body will thank you later in life,” said Donna Linton, RMR, a freelancer and captioner in Ashburn, Va. Of course, make sure you have a desk to go along with that chair, and think about what else you will need to store. You can have a simple space with shelves or turn it into your dream work space. “I had [my office] built out by Closets by Design specifically to my needs, i.e., how many computer stations, where the printer would be, cubbies for different size transcript binders, where the paper would be, and where my machine case would fit,” said Linton.

Having the right stuff

The essential equipment is obvious: steno machine, computer, printer. “I’ve transitioned to captioning in the last year, so I have a TV now so if I’m captioning a show that I have on my television, I can watch my captions,” said Tammy McGhee, RMR, a captioner in Bellville, Ohio. Beyond that, think about potential arrangements and additions. For example, Hackner has a “glass desk with a pullout drawer for an external keyboard and mouse” as well as “a docking station that I just hook my laptop up to, and then I work on a beautiful 29-inch monitor.”

Don’t be afraid to try a new configuration if the original setup isn’t working for you. “I ended up rearranging the space three times to get it right!” said English. It may take time to figure out the best way to organize the space. “I definitely learned how to work more efficiently and what supplies I needed to keep within reach,” said Trevathan. “I’ve got awesome storage space in my office; we planned it that way when we added this portion onto our house.”

Since Pruitt has more space, she’s organized the rooms as a more standard office and a production space. “One is my office with the standard equipment. I have a desk, credenza, bookshelves, chair, fax machine, scanner and printer as well as anything I can’t find a place for,” she said. “The other room houses the production room. It contains computers, a robotic printer, DVD recorders, mixers, cameras, tripods, bags, etc.”

Working from home means being able to run a business, so make sure you have all the necessary software and supplies. Consider having a word processing program like Microsoft Word (or the entire Microsoft Office suite) and accounting software like QuickBooks, and of course, make sure you have up-to-date CAT or captioning software with tech support. Think about cloud or digital storage along with physical storage. Pruitt also uses Wondershare and Adobe Premiere for video editing and has projectors, screens, and lighting.

Trevathan lives in a rural area, so she needs to make sure she has access to all the supplies she needs – it’s not easy to just run to the store. These include binding combs, transcript covers, index and exhibit tabs, copy and printer paper, a schedule book, address labels and different sizes of mailing envelopes, and extra toner. Linton has two whiteboard calendars, a speakerphone, and a fireproof safe to store exhibits. And don’t forget the basics like pens, paper clips, a stapler and staples, etc.

The tax element

If you work from home, you may be able to claim your home office on your taxes. “My CPA figured out a percentage of how many square feet my office is and writes off that same portion of my utilities,” said McGhee. Your accountant should have a formula to determine how much the write-off actually is, and don’t forget to ask about additional spaces like an adjoining bathroom, storage space in another part of the house, or any other area that’s designated as work space.

Make it yours

Since you’ll likely be spending lots of time in your home office, think about what would make it a comfortable space for you. “I’ve got my NCRA certificates and notary certificate framed and on the wall,” said Trevathan, along with her family’s schedules. “I wanted to be able to look out the window, so I had the desk location configured that way,” said Linton. “I wanted it sunny, so I painted it yellow.” English uses Longaberger baskets and “pretty stackable boxes with positive sayings on it” as storage, and she also recommends having “pictures of loved ones to remind you to be grateful.”

Pros and cons

The positive aspects of having a home office are pretty clear: “You can work when you need to,” said McGhee, and Pruitt said she “can cook, clean, launder, and have my animals under my feet.” Trevathan likes that she doesn’t “have to go out of the house to go to an office to do my editing and binding.” Linton added: “If I go to sell the home, anyone who doesn’t want an office can easily turn it back into a bedroom. They might even like to use it as a craft room or a homework space for the kids.”

However, having work nearby in a home office is both an advantage (can’t beat the commute) and a disadvantage. “Sometimes you feel like it’s hard to get away from work,” said McGhee. Trevathan echoed this: “I always feel like I need to be working and never leave work. I’ll run upstairs to the office to return a phone call and end up working on transcripts for an hour before I even realize it.” Perhaps English has figured out the trick, however, to maintaining boundaries. “You can walk out and leave the work behind,” she said. Having a dedicated space for work can mean literal help with compartmentalizing, so when you close the door, you leave the work at work.

2018 NCRA Firm Owners Executive Conference keynote to focus on achieving business excellence

John Spence will present the keynote at the 2018 NCRA Firm Owners Executive Conference

Participants in the 2018 NCRA Firm Owners Executive Conference will gain an inside track into the thinking of John Spence, one of the top 100 business thought leaders in the nation. Spence will take the podium as keynote speaker and share his insights into achieving business excellence.

The 2018 NCRA Firm Owners Executive Conference takes place Jan. 28-30 at the Don CeSar Hotel in St. Pete Beach, Fla. Members are urged to register for the conference soon to take advantage of a discounted rate being offered through Dec. 15. Rates for the conference registration will increase by $100 beginning Dec. 16. Special hotel rates for the event will expire on Jan. 5, 2018.

In addition to the keynote, Spence will present his most intensive business improvement workshop. This workshop is specifically created to help management teams take a hard, honest look at their business to determine exactly where their strengths and weaknesses are and then create a focused plan for how to succeed at a higher level in the marketplace. Participants will leave his session with a much improved understanding of their business as well as a plan of specific action steps that address what needs to be done immediately to improve their organization’s revenues, market share, and profitability.

Key elements Spence will address include:

  • an understanding of the importance of creating a clear vision and a focused strategy
  • numerous benchmarking audits against top companies
  • an understanding of the four primary and four secondary drivers of business excellence
  • an examination of the importance of mastering the organization’s “moments of truth”
  • the discovery of why it is critical to own the customer’s voice
  • an in-depth look at how organizations create effective strategies
  • an examination of the nine steps to effective execution
  • the discovery of how to greatly increase accountability across the organization

For more than 22 years, Spence has traveled worldwide to help people and businesses be more successful. He is the author of five books and co-author of several more, a business consultant, workshop facilitator, and executive coach with a client list that includes numerous Fortune 500 firms, small to medium-sized businesses, professional associations, and other organizations. His areas of expertise include leadership, high-performance teams, managing change, organizational culture, consultative selling, strategic planning, strategy execution, and the future of business.

At 26 years old, Spence was the CEO of an international Rockefeller foundation, overseeing projects in 20 countries. Just two years later, Inc. Magazine named him one of America’s Up and Coming Young Business Leaders. He has also been recognized as one of the Top 100 Small Business Influencers in America, one of the Top 50 Small Business Experts in America, and one of the top 500 Leadership Development Experts in the World. In addition, the American Management Association named him one of America’s Top 50 Leaders to Watch. He has been a guest lecturer at more than 90 colleges and universities, including MIT, Stanford, Cornell, and the Wharton School of Business.

“The Firm Owners Executive Conference is designed to help you grow your business. The topics this year address the new challenges we’re all facing with a head-on approach with frank discussion on how to embrace the changes so that we are not left behind. By the end of the conference, you will return home with a renewed strength and business strategy for 2018. You will be more aware of the changes in technology and how they will impact law firms, corporations, insurance companies, and legal support services, with an emphasis on court reporters,” said Christa Walton, CMRS, CEO of Florida-based Orange Legal, who has attended numerous Firm Owner events.

“When our firm was smaller, the benefit was attending the classes and learning from the speakers. Now that our firm has grown and we know more, the biggest benefit of attending is getting the opportunity to network and spend time with great friends. Most of the time, at one point during the event, the owner and I will look at each other and say, ‘That just paid for the entire conference,’ whether it be getting the opportunity to speak with a firm owner who needs help in our area or just hearing how another agency does something we’ve been struggling with,” she added.

In addition to enjoying ample networking receptions and opportunities, participants in the 2018 event can expect to connect, learn, and get energized through a number of insightful educational sessions.

Among the guest speakers on the bill this year will be Steve Scott, SEO strategist, internet marketing educator, and owner of the Tampa SEO Training Academy. Scott will lead a session dedicated to business marketing on the Web. He will touch on the secrets to search engine optimization (SEO) success, tactics and techniques for online marketing, and social media marketing, among other topics.

Since August 2006, Scott has worked with individuals and corporate clients to use internet-marketing strategies like SEO, local search, social media, pay-per-click, and more. His clients have included IBM, American Express, Reader’s Digest, and Revlon.

“During my career, I’ve developed websites and search engine optimization programs for clients, both large and small. Helping business owners worldwide create a powerful online presence for their brands is my life’s work,” Scott said. “As an SEO industry veteran with a history in computer training dating back to 1990, I’ve trained and consulted with Fortune 1000 companies and have logged nearly 4,000+ hours in a hands-on training environment.”

For more information and to register for the host hotel and conference, visit NCRA.org/FirmOwners.

No passport? No problem

2016 FirmOwners_Puerto Rico_smRegistration is now open for 2016 NCRA Firm Owners Executive Conference being held for the first time in the Caribbean. Join hundreds of the profession’s top firm owners and managers who plan to attend and kick off spring at the Caribe Hilton, San Juan, Puerto Rico, April 17-19. Because Puerto Rico is an unincorporated U.S. territory, no passport is needed.

NCRA’s Firm Owners Conference, which is designed exclusively for owners and managers of court reporting and CART captioning firms, is considered the Association’s most prestigious event. Attendees will experience unparalleled networking opportunities, advance business learning, and first-class accommodations.

Due to the unusually high anticipated demand for rooms this year, and the limited number available at the special rate of $179 plus taxes and fees, NCRA members are urged to make reservations now before rates go up after March 25. In addition, early conference registration discounts end Dec. 31.

Hotel registration is available online at NCRA.org/forsv, by phone at 787-721-0303, ext. 2156, or 800-468-8585, or by at email at reservations.caribe@hilton.com. If booking via phone or email, please refer to group code NCRA16 to secure the discounted rate. Please be advised that a credit card is required to guarantee room reservations.

For more information and to register for the 2016 Firm Owners Executive Conference, visit NCRA.org/FirmOwners.

Business tips for freelancers

Freelancer business tipsWhile flexibility and independence are strengths of freelancing, they also introduce complications. Managing personal business affairs while developing professionally and finding a balance between life and work can be challenging. Fortunately, these skills can get better with practice, and experienced court reporters are a great resource for business tips.

Marketing

For a freelancer, the best marketing strategy involves using a variety of cost-productive tools. The first step is to prepare the court reporter’s equivalent of a portfolio. “Prepare a professional one-page resume and be sure it is grammatically correct,” says Christine Phipps, RPR, a freelancer and firm owner from West Palm Beach, Fla. “Also list the writer you use along with the CAT software with version number,” she adds, so firm owners can see the reporter uses up-to-date, reliable technology. Phipps also suggests including a sample excerpt of an ASCII transcript of approximately 20 pages in length, removing any personal details or information that is confidential under HIPAA, along with the steno notes for that section. This portfolio can be emailed to firm owners so they have an idea of what to expect from potential new reporters.

Networking is an important part of a marketing strategy, as well as a great way to improve skills. “You want to make sure you network with other court reporters and firm owners at association events so that you can become known in your local market,” says Kim Neeson, RPR, CRR, CBC, CCP, a freelancer and firm owner from Toronto, Canada. “Participate on a committee of your local association, so people can get to see your competencies firsthand, even if it’s not as a court reporter per se.”

Having a personal connection to a network could also lead to more work. According to the 2014 Firm Owners Economic Benchmark Survey, about 56 percent of court reporting firms’ client base comes from other court reporting firms and colleagues, suggesting that freelancers should make connections to firms in their area even if they aren’t regularly accepting work from that firm.

Phipps agrees, adding that while conventions provide great learning opportunities, their value goes beyond the sessions: “Conventions are about surrounding yourself with people in the field and learning from them.” She emphasizes that volunteering for a local, state, or national association is also a great way to develop professionally. “I have met some amazing, wonderful, brilliant people who have taught me not to look at things in a vacuum. From this, I’ve learned so many tips and tricks that others do that I never could have learned anywhere else,” continues Phipps.

New connections, however, lose their value if they end with the initial conversation. Lisa Migliore Black, a freelancer and firm owner from Louisville, Ky., emphasizes that any marketing materials need to look professional. “It’s better to have no marketing materials than to have something that represents your company poorly or looks like it was thrown together,” she says. If you’re not comfortable with design, for either print or Web, it might be worthwhile to hire someone to help. Alternatively, think more creatively for marketing materials. For example, “many people may dispose of a business card or flyer, but few throw away a pen,” Black says.

Any marketing strategy should at least consider social media, although using social media should be done thoughtfully. For an individual, a social media account on a site like LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter might suffice, or it might be worthwhile setting up a website. But, as Black points out, then the trick is getting traffic to the site. Having a blog can help, says Black, because then there’s content for potential clients to read and to share on social media. But Phipps warns that even though many people use sites like Facebook for more personal reasons, anything that can be seen by the public needs to be professional.

Ultimately, however, the best marketing tactic is providing excellent client service. “Word-of-mouth referrals are more effective for bringing business to the door than any print ad or client testimonial on my website,” says Black. And when you find those clients, “underpromise and overdeliver,” Black advises. Neeson agrees: “The more agency clients request you for your work, the more you build up your business and value to those you serve.”

Finances

The key to managing business finances is organization. Keep records not just on expenses like meals, parking, and office supplies, but also track all income. “Many firms pay via direct deposit, and you are able to get your payroll sheets from within the online office program,” says Phipps. “You should download these and save for your records. I have seen firms that have cut reporters off from their online office access when the reporter no longer works for the firm, and then that information is no longer available.” Then use separate files – whether on the computer or in hard copy – to organize those documents into categories.

Because finances can be tricky, this is another area where it’s a good idea to invest in some help. Bookkeeping software like FreshBooks or QuickBooks can help with tracking income and expenses and, depending on the product, may also help with creating reports and determining quarterly taxes. Many of them include tools on mobile devices as well. An accountant can also help with bookkeeping.

The 2015 Freelancer Survey Report makes it clear that getting paid in a timely manner is a main concern for freelancers, but the situation depends on whether the money comes through a firm or directly from the clients. For freelancers accepting work by firms, it’s crucial to have a clear understanding of the firms’ policies. “If a new firm is contacting you to cover for them, I would do your best to check their references with friends or whatever connections you have available to you to make sure there are no payment issues,” says Phipps. “You should at least have an email confirming the firm’s policy for payment to reporters and what your responsibilities are. If the firm hasn’t paid in the specified time, contact the accounting department.” And, as with all legal issues, make sure to keep all conversations about payment in writing.

For freelancers who are acting as one-person firms and taking work directly from clients, have a payment timeline in place. Thirty days is a common threshold to send a reminder invoice, possibly with a late fee (although this should be clear in the original contract), and call the client to confirm they received the second invoice and understand that payment is expected. For long overdue accounts, the next step may be legal action, which could mean small claims court or a collection attorney. Again, keep a written record of the entire transaction.

Professionalism

The value in attending court reporting events cannot be understated. Conventions are not only a networking tool for marketing; they’re also important for professional development. In industries like court reporting, captioning, and legal video that are always changing, continuing education is crucial to remain a valuable professional, which is why NCRA credentials require continuing education and offers so many methods of earning those CEUs. Conferences and similar events are also great places to get one-on-one advice from colleagues. Interacting with other professionals provides the opportunity to find anything from a solution for a single problem or a long-term mentor and guide. This is especially important when it comes to staying on top of technology; conferences are a great place to meet with vendors and discover new products (or even a few new features) or to find tech-savvy colleagues who are happy to share knowledge, in person or via social media networks.

Events are not the only place to find professional development, however. The Internet can be a great place to find a network of like-minded professionals or resources. The U.S. Small Business Administration offers dozens of articles about starting and running a small business, which is essentially what freelancers are doing. The SBA recommends, for example, freelancers give themselves a regular review just as they would get if they were in a more traditional office. Consider setting specific professional goals throughout the year and using personal reviews to track them. Feedback from clients and firms, which sometimes need to be solicited, can help with developing specific goals.

Work/life balance

One of the trickiest aspects of being a freelancer is finding a balance between professional and personal responsibilities. Unlike other areas like marketing or finances, which have more general tricks, finding the right balance comes down to what works for the individual. First and foremost, set boundaries. “Know how long it takes you to scope and proofread work,” says Phipps. “You should know your limits and be clear with the firms you’re working with on the maximum amount of pages you can take in a week.” And be sure to schedule breaks, both large and small. For large depositions, Black sets a daily page goal and small percentage goals through the day and takes short breaks in between. She also suggests using a tablet to proofread so she can do so while sitting outside or eating a meal. And don’t underestimate the value of a longer break when necessary. “I gave up too many vacations only to realize that it’s just as important to recharge as it is to be present at work,” Neeson says.

Even though proofreading takes time, there are a few ways to make the task more manageable. At the basic level, write clean and know your software. “I made it my mission to always try to write as clean as possible and thereby reduce my scoping and proofreading time,” says Neeson. Black suggests using dead time during the day to scope and proofread. “The biggest efficiency is editing while I’m taking down live testimony. Every correction I make from my writer or on my realtime screen saves me valuable time later.” The right software can make these tasks easier too. Phipps suggests using Connection Magic because then reporters “can invite a scopist into their file to scope and the court reporter can simultaneously proofread at the same time.” Black makes sure to bring a touchscreen laptop on jobs to quick tap the screen and add missing punctuation on-the-job. She also suggests taking advantage of software training sessions, either one-on-one or in a group setting.

In many ways, however, finding a balance comes down to finding help when necessary, whether this is using a trusted scopist or proofreader, delegating household tasks to other family members or to a cleaning service, finding service professionals who are flexible about accommodating last-minute appointments, or prioritizing daily events, like making sure to eat dinner as a family. For freelancers with children, however, sometimes the biggest hurdle to finding a balance is to not feel guilty about missing things here and there.

The same things that make freelancing challenging can also be advantages. Having personal responsibility over marketing and finances also means having a measure of control. This is especially true in marketing since word of mouth still prevails, even in the digital age, and freelancers definitely have control over the quality of their customer service. Some of the same tactics that can increase business development can also help with individual professional development, especially by attending local, state, or national conferences. And while achieving a true balance between work and life is tricky, having a more flexible schedule can help shift responsibilities around when something comes up. The biggest tip for a freelancer, however, is to stay active in a network of like-minded colleagues to continue to share information and support with each other.

 

Megan Rogers is NCRA’s Communications Assurance Specialist. She can be reached at mrogers@ncra.org.

Secrets of Success – Matthew Dreger: Advocate and keep your skills current

Matthew A. DregerMatthew A. Dreger has been in the field since the late 1970s, beginning his career as a freelancer followed by 27 years as an official court reporter. Although he is now retired from the Third Judicial Circuit Court in Wayne County, Mich., he spent more than three decades in the court reporting profession. He is also a past president of the Michigan Association of Professional Court Reporters, where he held this important position from 2001-2002. Dreger, who makes Mount Clemens, Mich., his home, offers great insight and advice on how to be successful in this ever-changing profession.

What traits have contributed to your success?

Drive. Desire for the better things in life and the wish to retire early in life. Being one of the two first computerized court reporters in the 36th District Court in Detroit in 1986 and one of the two realtime official court reporters in the Recorder’s/ Circuit Court in Detroit in the 1990s led to a very successful career path.

How has the court reporting business changed over the past years?

When I was a freelancer in the late 1970s, you dictated, you had several typists to keep up with the work load, and you were up all night. With the advent of realtime and the improvement in skills that comes from that style of writing, I no longer needed any assistance to keep up with my transcript load in one of the busiest courthouses in the United States. With realtime, the job became self-contained, no longer subject to other people’s scheduling problems, and, of course, expedited transcripts were no longer the work-intensive transcripts they once were.

What type of skill set is needed to be successful?

The skill set most necessary is the desire to advance yourself, your professional abilities, and job quality through software, writers, Bluetooth, e-trans, realtime, rough draft. Keeping your skills current makes you the most marketable of all reporters.

What role does technology play in being successful, and how does technology affect the court reporting business?

Technology took court reporting from a well-paying drudgery profession to a stateof- the-art profession that allows attorneys to have their products in a timeframe unmatched by any other type of reporting.

How will technology affect the future of the business, and what does a reporter need to do/focus on when that happens?

Technology has allowed our profession to develop into several new career paths, and reporters need to focus on the type of career path they are interested in. After your basic skills are developed, CART, realtime reporting as a freelancer or official, and/or closed captioning are focus areas that allow reporters to choose a profession that is more in sync with their lifestyles and family needs. Again, being a standout in the crowd with your skill set will give you a huge advantage.

How important is networking to building business and become successful?

Extremely.

Can you provide some examples of good networking that could help court reporters?

Knowing your legislators and keeping in contact with those who make the laws/statues, etc., that govern reporters is integral to our future. That contact must occur on a regular basis and not just when there is a crisis or change that will impact the court reporting profession.

What would be the best advice (or pieces of advice) you could give a student who is about to enter the field?

Students should do their best to pay attention to rules, regulations, and office procedures where they work. Do a good job. Turn out your transcripts in a timely fashion. Continue your certification process. Keep your software up to date, and enjoy the financial rewards that come from a profession that allows you flexibility.

What type of advice would you give to an established court reporter who is considering getting out of the field due to changes in the business?

What changes could be so drastic that you would want to leave this field? You have multiple career paths open to you. If you are a reporter with the skills and certifications looked for in our field, the only thing you need to do is understand changes and go with the flow. You do not want to find yourself in the same place as many auto companies because “that’s the way we have always done it!” We have gone from the pen writer to the manual machine writer, then on to the electric machine writer, to the computerized machine writer, and on to the realtime writer, the CART provider, and the closed caption writer. And through all those reinventions and new ways of doing steno writing, we have heard you will be replaced by tape recording, digital recording, etc. We have evolved. We are still here. We can still do it faster, better, and the most accurately. We are technology. Don’t leave the business; evolve with the business.

Where do you see the court reporting profession going in the future? And what do reporters need to do to prepare for that?

I see court reporting remaining a vibrant profession. I see court reporting career paths continuing to blossom and allowing stenographic writers choices. I see court reporting becoming a truly IT business profession with high pay and importance. To prepare for this future, NCRA, state associations, state certifications, continuing education, education, and relationship building with decision makers, stake holders, education of the members of the legal field, the television industry, and educational industry of what we can provide, what we do provide, and how we can assist them all in the furtherance of their own professions is of the highest priority. We must advocate. We must maintain our skills. We must have the skills we profess.

Do you want to nominate someone for the “Secrets of Success” series? Send your pick into the JCR’sWriter/Editor, Linda Smolkin, at lsmolkin@ncra.org.

You, Inc. – Health care law update

In an effort to bring our members the most up-to-date information about changes to this nation’s healthcare policy, we wanted to provide an update on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the “Healthcare Bill”). The next round of provisions under the Affordable Care Act (the “Healthcare Bill”), will take effect in October, when qualified individuals and small business employers will be able to access information and enroll in subsidized plans through state-established healthcare exchanges and the Small Business Health Options (SHOP) Program. Coverage by the exchanges and the SHOP program are then set to begin Jan. 1, 2014.

FOR INDIVIDUALS

This latest reform to take effect under the new healthcare system is referred to as the shared responsibility requirement. It calls for all individuals not covered by an employer- sponsored health plan, Medicaid, Medicare, or any other public insurance program,* to secure an approved private insurance policy or pay a penalty. The state-based health insurance exchanges being established will provide a marketplace where individuals can compare policies and premiums, and purchase insurance coverage, in some instances with a government subsidy if eligible.

The individual health insurance exchanges will offer a choice of four levels of benefit packages that differ by the percentage of costs the health plan covers. Under the program, individuals and the self-employed may qualify for specific tax credits and subsidies on a sliding scale, based on income. Coverage will be comprehensive and include doctor appointments, medications, and hospital visits. In addition, individuals will be able to compare price, benefits, quality, and other features of healthcare plans. This increased access to quality, affordable healthcare is also expected to make it easier for independent contractors to purchase and afford health insurance.

For more information about the health care law and its reforms, or about the healthcare exchange in your state, visit www.healthcare.gov.

FOR SMALL BUSINESSES

The SHOP portion of the healthcare act is designed to simplify the process of securing healthcare for employees and provide small business owners with more choices and control over the cost of their policies. Through state-established SHOPs, small business owners will be able to compare and choose the level of coverage they want to offer employees, as well as how much they are willing to contribute towards employee coverage. In addition, the program will also provide access to expanded tax credits for small businesses, which in some instances can cover as much as 50 percent of employer contribution toward premium costs if they are eligible and employ low- to moderate-wage workers. Other tax incentives under the program include the opportunity for a business owner and his or her employees to use pre-tax dollars to make premium payments.

Under the new law, small business owners can either use their existing insurance broker to access the SHOP, or they can access information directly by visiting www. healthcare.gov/marketplace/small-business. (Under the new healthcare system, in general a business is considered small if it has up to 50 employees. In some states, the self-employed with no employees are also considered a small business.)

WHAT COMES NEXT?

Below is a list of additional reforms that will take affect on Jan. 1, 2014, under the new healthcare law. For more information about these other coming changes, visit: http://www.healthcare.gov/law/timeline/.

  • Starting in 2014, if affordable coverage is not available to an individual, he or she will be eligible for an exemption. Americans who earn less than 133 percent of the poverty level (approximately $14,000 for an individual and $29,000 for a family of four) will be eligible to enroll in Medicaid. States will receive 100 percent federal funding for the first three years to support this expanded coverage, phasing to 90 percent federal funding in subsequent years.
  • Starting in 2014, tax credits to help the middle class afford insurance will become available for those with income between 100 percent and 400 percent of the poverty line who are not eligible for other affordable coverage. The tax credit is advanceable, so it can lower premium payments each month, rather than making you wait for tax time. It’s also refundable, so even moderate income families can receive the full benefit of the credit. These individuals may also qualify for reduced cost-sharing (co-payments, co-insurance, and deductibles).
  • Starting in 2014, strong reforms will be implemented that will prohibit insurance companies from refusing to sell coverage or renew policies because of an individual’s pre-existing conditions.
  • Starting in 2014, the second phase of the small business tax credit for qualified small businesses and small non-profit organizations will begin. In this phase, the credit is up to 50 percent of the employer’s contribution to provide health insurance for employees.

* To be eligible for coverage under the new healthcare system, you must live in the United States and be a U.S. citizen or national. Individuals incarcerated are not eligible to participate in the system.