In parts of America, including on Capitol Hill, the healthcare debate has become more like an emotion-fueled screaming match. Valid points are getting tangled in who-can-shout-louder contests, and dialogue is being tossed out faster than last night’s leftovers.

The result is that many Americans, including small-business owners, are left to churn through political discourse as they struggle to handle the oft-crushing cost of healthcare and try to figure out how Barack Obama’s proposed healthcare reforms could affect them.

“We need communication and access to information,” says Joseph Flamini, vice president of St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton. “This healthcare debate that is going on is about finding ways to help those in need. The question is: How do we handle this as a country?”

Flamini will be one of four panelists to speak on “The Current State of Healthcare — Can Small Businesses Afford the Ill Effects?” on Friday, September 18, at 8 a.m. at the Trenton Country Club, 201 Sullivan Way in West Trenton. The event is sponsored by the Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with Mercer Business Magazine. Cost: $35. For information or to register, call 609-689-9960, or visit www.mercerchamber.org.

Tim Losch, president of the First Washington division of The Bank, will facilitate the panel discussion, which will also include: Anthony “Skip” Cimino, CEO of Robert Wood Johnson Hospital-Hamilton; Mark Jones, president of University Medical Center at Princeton; and Al Maghazehe, CEO of Capital Health in Trenton.

“This forum is a good opportunity to hear some of the discussion and learn what’s going on with healthcare,” Flamini says. “I think that can help small businesses. We don’t have all the answers, but with good, healthy discussion, it at least gets the information out there.”

Flamini earned a bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in business from Rutgers and a master’s in business from St. Joseph’s University in Pennsylvania. Though his father was a cabinet maker who worked primarily with medical and dental practices, Flamini says his interest in healthcare began after college, when he accepted a job in hospital administration that largely dealt with planning and budgets.

“You really find out how they operate every day,” he says. “Every discussion is about the people working in healthcare, what they need, and the supplies that are needed.”

Flamini has remained in hospital administration for 30 years. He previously worked at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine for 12 years and at Lourdes Medical Center in Burlington County for another 12 years. He started with St. Francis in 2002.

“I tell my employees, the folks here, that if you come to healthcare, you’re coming with a little different purpose, and that is to care for people,” he says.

Flamini grew up in South Jersey, where his mother worked as a telephone operator. He lives in Mount Laurel with his wife, Debbie, who works with the Mount Laurel school system. The couple has three children: Kristen, 28, who works with autistic children; Joe, 25, a sales executive; and Ryan, 22, who is completing his bachelor’s in film and video at Drexel.

The current state of healthcare. The healthcare system can be confusing and overwhelming, in addition to expensive, particularly for small business owners with limited resources and budgets. The financial burden has long had an ill effect on entrepreneurs, Flamini says, adding now is the time to make adjustments.

“The healthcare system is in need of change,” he says. “Healthcare is an industry in transition, and I think, appropriately so, we need to move to a new level.”

Effect on small businesses. The ever-increasing cost of healthcare is bankrupting many small businesses nationwide, forcing owners to lay off employees, eliminate medical coverage all together or shut down completely, Flamini says.

“The issue is cost,” Flamini says. “For them, seeing that piece of their budget grow and grow each year is difficult. So we need to figure out how small business can reduce costs without sacrificing quality.”

However, he says, some small business owners are taking proactive (and sometimes creative) steps to stem skyrocketing healthcare costs. They are encouraging employees to get and stay healthy by providing incentives, including on-site nutritional seminars, weight-loss competitions, lunchtime walking clubs, and a flex time option to go to the gym.

“People need to take responsibility for their healthcare,” Flamini says, adding that obesity-related health issues alone are costing businesses, and the country, millions of dollars in extra expenses, including having to buy medical equipment to accommodate obese patients. “One of the issues is making sure we stay healthy. Are we doing our part?”

Healthcare reform. One component of healthcare reform should be to ensure that small businesses owners receive a fair, affordable deal when selecting medical coverage, Flamini says. “Businesses should have the option to buy insurance in a way that allows insurance companies to compete for their business, and to ensure that there are good opportunities for businesses to have that open selection,” he says.

But, Flamini adds, the big-picture questions then become who is going to pay what for national healthcare reforms, and how much will they have to pay.

“That is probably the biggest question because people in general believe we need to change the healthcare system and coverage should be available for people who need it. The question is: How do we as a country pay for that? Much of it is to be paid for with efficiencies and cutting out waste, but that is going to be a challenge.”

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