Some want universal healthcare loophole closed

July 14, 2011 7:40:22 PM PDT
San Francisco's universal health care may not be so universal after all.

What critics are describing as a "loophole" has allowed some businesses to pocket the money that was originally intended to pay their employee's medical expenses, but there's a new effort to change that.

If you work at the French restaurant Zazie's, you have health insurance, whether you're washing the dishes or mixing Bastille Day brunch mimosas.

"I think it also is like a badge of honor for a restaurant," said server Brian Kamps. "They want to take care of their employees."

It's also Zazie's way of complying with a San Francisco ordinance that requires health care for all workers. Other restaurants choose to pay into the city's health fund, or open health care spending accounts, for all workers.

Like many of them, Zazie's pays for it by tacking on an extra dollar to each customer's bill.

"If it's a dollar that goes to the servers getting health care, that's a good thing," said customer Petey Barma.

At some restaurants, however, that dollar has actually wound up right back into the restaurant owner's pocket. Critics are calling it a loophole, and Zazie's owner told a board of supervisor's committee that she wants that loophole closed.

"It offends me that there are so many restaurants that are putting a surcharge or a percentage onto the bills that we are paying, and then not paying that service," Jennifer Piallat, Zazie's owner, says. "It's fraudulent and misleading."

The loophole works like this: If workers don't use the money in their health care spending accounts, it goes back to their employers at the end of the year. The Golden Gate Restaurant Association endorses this practice.

"It's available to them -- the can take advantage of it -- but if they're not going to use it, why should the employer waste that money?" questioned Restaurant Association director Rob Black.

Supervisor David Campos wants that money to be set aside forever, so hospitals don't see a flood of uninsured restaurant workers every January.

"They're going to go to that emergency room, which means that the taxpayers of the city and county of San Francisco are going to foot that bill," Supervisor Campos said.

The committee voted 2-1 to hold the matter for additional review, which means the matter has been delayed for a second time. Campos says he's convinced he can get enough signatures from other supervisors to bring the issue in front of the full board.

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