This is the first in a five-part series, “Fed up in Alaska,” exploring issues that voters will take to the polls this November.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Stan Selman is a man of principle. As the owner of the oldest steak house in Anchorage, he is dedicated to paying for his employees’ health care. It’s what his Club Paris restaurant, founded in the 1950s, has always done.
But in the face of soaring health care costs in Alaska, he said he’s nearing a breaking point. Each month he pays more than $16,000 for health insurance for his 25 employees, which adds up to over $200,000 per year.
“I hate to be a gloom and doom guy, but you know, shoot, we’re a small family-owned business that doesn’t have deep pockets,” Selman said, “and, boy, I feel like you can only sell a piece of meat for so much money.”
As in much of the country, health care in Alaska is a key election issue as the November midterms loom. Fairbanks, Juneau, Kodiak and Anchorage have the four highest coverage costs in the nation, according to the nationally collected cost of living index.
In Alaska, over 90 percent of large firms with more than 100 employees offer health insurance to their employees. But 70 percent of firms in Alaska have fewer than 10 employees, and they face “completely different market conditions,” Guettabi said.
While federal and state employees are covered by their employers, 80 percent of Alaska’s workers are employed by private businesses, local governments and school districts. Only a third of those employers provide health insurance. For most, it’s simply too expensive.
As an owner of a business with fewer than 50 employees, Selman isn’t required to provide insurance. But he does it anyway because that’s what his father wanted. But Club Paris is one of a declining number of Alaska businesses that provide insurance for employees, and the coverage he provides must continue to meet ACA standards.
“We’re known for a really good meal and a nice stiff cocktail — getting your money’s worth,” said Selman, who is at a loss for options as to how to deal with the rising health insurance costs.
“There is only one way, and that is to pass it on to the consumer,” he said.
The tight and contentious Alaska Senate race could be a decisive in defining the majority in the Senate. In this watershed election, health insurance is a watershed issue.
At Club Paris, Sheila Hestes said she will make ballot decisions based on what’s best for her family and count her blessings that she has coverage through her employer.
“There’s a lot of people that are a lot worse off than I am, and I don’t know how they do it,” she said. “I don’t know how they pay for it.”
At least for now, her employer remains committed to covering his employees.
“I just keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep paying bills,” Selman said. “At some point in time, the prices are gonna get to a point where people are gonna go, ‘You know what? I’d rather go buy a steak at the store and cook it at home.’”
To view the “Fed up in Alaska” series, tune in to “Al Jazeera America News” with John Seigenthaler this Mon. to Fri. at 8 p.m. Eastern time.