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Good News Is No News

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Betsy Burton owns a small independent bookstore in Salt Lake City called The King's English Bookshop. Her business will literally be saved by the tax credit for small businesses offered through health reform. But she is frustrated. No one seems to know about the tax credit that has helped her, and the media doesn't seem to be covering it much.

This is Betsy's story and I tell it so that if you own a small business or know someone who does, you can help her spread the story.

Betsy pays 100% of the premium for almost all of her seven full time employees and would like to provide coverage for every one of her 25 employees. But last year, as the premiums rose yet again, she got to the point where it was either drop coverage or go out of business. Then she found out about a relatively little known provision of health reform -- a tax credit for businesses who have fewer than 25 employees with average wages of less than $50,000 a year. Her business certainly qualified. The tax credit doesn't apply to her as owner or her family, but what did apply looked to be very helpful.

Why does Betsy even provide her employees with coverage? "It's simple," she says. "To compete." In order to compete with the chain bookstores, Betsy needs to hire and retain a highly skilled workforce. When you go to a bookstore, you want to be able to ask questions. What's this book about? Who writes the best mysteries? Do you have any books about how to raise vegetables? Asking those questions online may get you some answers, but not the answers that a well trained bookstore employee can give you. To keep that type of employee, Betsy needs to offer them something more than a love of books. So she offers health care insurance coverage. But after several years of 20% increases as her employees aged, she found that she was spending about 30% of her payroll on health insurance alone, and it was eating up more than her business could absorb.

Although Betsy is on the board of the American Booksellers Association and Local First, a 501c3 that educates small business about critical issues, she has found that most of her colleagues don't really know about the tax credit. Ironically, she only found out the specifics when a reporter from AP called her for a quote on an article he was writing about how "bad" health reform was for small business. When he heard that she was actually interested in finding out how much she could save, he helped her calculate the savings she could get, and she was astonished. She could get a credit of $21,000 for 2010 health insurance costs, reducing her payroll costs to $50,000, a significant and real reduction. (You can find out your potential tax credit by going to the IRS website or the Small Business Majority website that helps you calculate what you might save.) Betsy decided she could afford to stay in business after all.

Because she had become an outspoken advocate for the tax credit, she was called one day by the White House. "Would you be able to come to Washington DC TOMORROW to meet with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and accompany the President to a backyard event in nearby Virginia?" Getting a call from the White House is a big deal for most people, no matter their politics, and of course Betsy was delighted to accept. Within 24 hours she was in DC, interviewing with Secretary Sebelius and in the backyard in Virginia with the President. When her turn came to ask a question, she told him about her dilemma and asked him why more people didn't know about the tax credit? Obama turned to the press covering the event and said, "I hope that all reporters will record what you asked." (You can watch the C Span coverage of this event and Betsy's question at minute 32....) Both Obama and Sebelius have been talking about health reform's benefits almost nonstop for months. Secretary Sebelius was as incredulous as Betsy as to why the issues don't seem to stick with the public.

By the way, in the tradition of any good bookstore owner, Betsy offered the President a book she thought he might want to read. It's called Ransom by David Malouf.

A moving novel of suffering, sorrow and redemption, Ransom tells the story of the relationship between two grieving men at war: fierce Achilles, who has lost his beloved Patroclus in the siege of Troy; and woeful Priam, whose son Hector killed Patroclus and was in turn savaged by Achilles. Each man's grief must confront the other's for surcease and resolution: a resolution more compelling to both than the demands of war. For when the wizened father and the vicious murderer of his son meet, "the past and present blend, enemies exchange places, hatred turns to understanding, youth pities age mourning youth."*

To be fair, there has been some coverage on business and health care websites -- and a New York Times reporter, Walecia Konrad, wrote a very good piece about the small business tax credit and interviewed Betsy. If you want a lot more detail about the tax credit, check out that article. But there have been surprisingly few articles in the main stream press, cable news or the internet about it, especially in relation to the negative press that health reform has received. Obama estimates that 4 million businesses are eligible for this tax credit, but the uptake has been relatively slow It's not that difficult to get the tax credit. You don't even have to file an application. All you have to do is file one additional form with your company's tax return for 2010 and the credit is available.

"I'm not a conspiracy theorist," says Betsy. "I don't think the media conspires not to cover this issue. But I just don't understand why we always have to have a tragedy, a disaster, or some other sensational story to get information out to the public. I definitely fault the media for not helping get this story out." Perhaps it is also about the incredible "noise" of information we are exposed to, day after day. How does something good get communicated? How does good news compete with quirky or negative news?

Perhaps this piece by Jamison Foser in Media Matters will help explain this phenomenon:

The dominant political force of our time is not Karl Rove or the Christian Right or Bill Clinton. It is not the ruthlessness or the tactical and strategic superiority of the Republicans, and it is not your favorite theory about what is wrong with the Democrats.

The dominant political force of our time is the media.

And what they will -- and will not cover.