The Health Insurance Debacle

August 29, 2007

Realizing the risk of total ostracism from my conservative friends, I’m going to write it anyway:

I hope that Hillary wins the election.

There, that’s over with. Now I can explain myself. Things are broken now, but our elected officials are still trying to put them back together in a weak, kind of half-witted sort of way. Poor Richard’s hypothesis is that after 8 years of Hillary, the United States will be so irrevocably broken that we’ll have to start all over again. Maybe then we can elect responsible people to put it back together in the way that the founding fathers intended.

It’s just difficult to resist an occasional political diatribe. I’m afraid that last week’s headlines have provoked one. Here’s what the headline read:

Number of Uninsured Jumps to 47 Million.

15.4% of the population is now uninsured. That means that the other 84.6% are paying for their healthcare in one way or another. In the South, the percentage uninsured is higher – 18%. Only 34% of small businesses my size (10 people or less) offer health insurance for their employees. And those of us in the 34% are wondering how we’re going to continue.

This has been a struggle for 10 years and I’ve almost reached the breaking point. Alphagraphics has used the services of several PEO (Professional Employers Organizations) firms to try to short circuit the devastating premiums that insurance companies charge small groups. Essentially, the PEO is the employer of record. In our case, AlphaGraphics’ employees are technically employees of a Conyers based company. We are pooled with other small businesses who also used the PEO’s services to theoretically procure lower health insurance rates.

I don’t think the insurance companies like the arrangement very much. We’ve had to change PEO’s about every three years as their insurance options dwindled. The company we’re with now is the best we’ve ever had, but we just received our premium notice for next year. The increase was over 30%. Our premium for a single employee will be in excess of $3600 per year. My family’s premium will be more than $12,000. That’s more than I earned in the early days of my career and a more than measurable chunk of what I take home now.

A couple of weeks ago, Guv’nah Sunny made a big announcement. He proposes a subsidy to help small businesses buy insurance for employees who are not currently covered. No details yet, but Sunny made one thing perfectly clear. Small businesses who currently offer insurance for their employees aren’t allowed in. I can’t put a finger on it, but that just chaps me a little.

When our state senator, Ross Tolleson, first ran for the Senate we talked about this issue. AlphaGraphics was new, we had one employee with a bad health history, and it was nearly impossible to get coverage. Ross was all for legislation that would allow small businesses to pool together to purchase health insurance. He had been a small business person and understood the problem. I was encouraged.

Six months after his election, I ran into Ross again and asked about the idea. He had developed amnesia . . . didn’t recall the conversation. It wasn’t even on his radar screen. I think the insurance companies got to him.

I know the insurers don’t like the idea, because California actually got an insurance pool for small businesses started. It even lasted for a couple of years . . . until all of the insurance companies pulled out. The small business pool idea was also introduced as part of a Senate bill in 2006 called HIMMAA, the Health Insurance Marketplace Modernization and Affordability Act. Pronounce it like you’re clearing your throat. This bill got all tangled up in political wrangling and never made it to a vote. It was expectorated.

Which brings us back to Hillary. I make no prediction that the Empress in waiting will be capable of solving this gnarled up mess. But I do believe that in her efforts to implement governmental control, she might be very successful in completely destroying the system.

Maybe then we can give healthcare back to the free market. Maybe then patients will actually pay for healthcare services with real money and will buy the services they can afford. Maybe doctors and hospitals will also be subject to market forces and prices will be set according to John Maynard’s laws of supply and demand. Perhaps the providers will even charge patients who pay cash less than they would the insurance company who makes them wait 90 days for payment. Maybe even the insurance companies will learn to behave ethically and limit their intervention into the private lives of those they insure.

Maybe Hillary’s husband actually didn’t inhale.

Finding Shoes that Fit

August 16, 2007

Printshops are like shoes. One size does not fit all feet. Like shoes, some printshops are functional and casual. Others are trendy. Some are stylishly snooty. Some are cheap: they look good to begin with, but they’re poorly made. Others are broken down, worn out, or just out of step with current styles. With shoes and printing companies, the trick is finding the ones that are durable, comfortable, and right for the occasion.

Lets talk about durability first. Times are tough in the printing business. The market is changing rapidly. Volumes of traditional printed products (forms, envelopes, business printing) are declining. At the same time there are continuing opportunities for companies willing to embrace new technologies and expand their product offerings. There are still old line printers in most towns who are essentially dead men walking. They haven’t upgraded machinery or added new capabilities and they will not survive for long. These are the old, worn-out shoes. They may feel comfortable when you put them on, but they’ll kill your feet if you wear them and they’re going to let you down on a long hike.

How do you tell if your printer falls in this category? Visit the shop. Is it clean and well-organized? Do you see computer screens everywhere? Does the machinery look new or does some of it look like a workmen’s compensation claim about to happen? Are there pallets of old paper, automobile parts or unidentifiable hunks of metal scattered through the shop? Many of these printing companies are owned by wonderful people who have loved and taken care of their customers for ever. Like the old shoes, they have given great service; but now it’s time to retire. The durable printers are constantly getting re-soled and shined. They are always talking about something new. They’re like a good pair of men’s dress shoes, they’re classic and stylish. If you take care of them, they’ll last forever.

Now for comfort. There’s no flash to comfort. You can certainly go to the Internet and shop for the latest whiz-bang deal on 1/4″ thick AC plywood business cards with UV coating and Minwax on both sides. This may be a shock for some of you, but you have to pay for the right fit: for comfort, durability and for dependability. Your local printing company is suffering from the low prices that the gang run internet printers offer (see Caveat Emptor!). I commiserated with a competitor yesterday who spoke about the time he spent training freelance designers to prepare files for print only to have them shop price on the Internet. To say it straight, Internet printing is a crapshoot. It is cheap and poorly made. You will never receive the care, the quality, the customer service, or the reliability of a good local printer from the low-priced Internet bandits.

The old Howlin’ Wolf song says, “I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed.” Here’s news . . . when you find the printshop that fits, it will offer both comfort and speed. Most mid-sized shops deal with a good many customers who create and print one or two jobs each year. For these folks, our objective is to make things as easy as possible. Generally, we try to make the best from what they give us within reasonable deadlines. But most of us also have key accounts who print with us every month or every week. If you belong to this customer category, your mainstay printing company should fit like a really comfortable pair of running shoes. If you will offer a commitment to your printer beyond just “letting them quote;” they should bend over backwards to streamline the workflow for you.

At Alphagraphics, we regularly slot production time for key accounts. We have literally configured customers’ computers to help them submit print ready .pdfs, we’ve set up proprietary websites for ordering, and we’ve purchased machinery and software to meet specific customer needs. For our key customers, proofs are turned in a matter of hours (sometimes minutes) and turnaround times are extremely short.

I’ve purchased Timberland boots for years. Until just recently, they’ve been the most durable and comfortable shoes I’ve owned. I still wear a pair of Timberland hiking boots that I purchased in Maine in 1988. Those boots were expensive, over $100 in 1988 money. Earlier this summer, I was surprised to find a pair of Timberland sandals at a discount store. I bought them for $48. They hurt my feet, they’re hot, and I can’t get them to break in. They’re cheap and poorly crafted. I think Timberland sold out.

Here’s the point. Printing is a value proposition. The printing company that fits will not be the cheapest. If your only consideration is price, allowing a good printing company to “quote” is a disservice to them and to your company. You’ll waste their time and yours. They will not be the cheapest and when you buy the cheapest, you’ll eventually get the Timberland sandals . . . ill fitting, hot and uncomfortable.

What about “right for the occasion?” One pair of shoes doesn’t always work for every occasion. This one’s a little tough, because there is the temptation to tell a customer that you can do it all. Print brokers and many conventional printing companies will accept any order and simply farm it out to another printer who has the capability to fill it. This isn’t always in their customers’ best interests.

You may wear casual shoes all the time. It may be that your local business printer can handle 90% of what you do in-house. Alternately, you might enjoy fancy parties. At these events, the casual shoes don’t work; high heels and dress shoes are required.

What do you do about specialty printing or the occasional long run? Ask your mainstay printer. The printer that you want to partner with will not hesitate to tell you when a job doesn’t fit. He will also probably have a recommendation or an alternative for you. We regularly recommend a large commercial shop in town for runs that will not run cost effectively on our presses. Likewise, we have referred another company for large format work that we could not do. Occasionally we use reputable trade printers to produce products for companies that prefer us to handle the job. We explain this to our customers before the order is accepted.

Why did I take the time to write this? Because times are tough in the printing business. Companies like AlphaGraphics badly need customers who will take the time to find and commit to a business relationship with the “printer that fits.” Companies like ours have invested a lot of time and money to make sure that we are like a good pair of shoes. We’re durable, a comfortable fit for our customers, and have the right capabilities to match the needs of our customer base.

There’s a lot be said for shoes that fit.

Just Make it Look Professional

August 6, 2007

Crayon scribbles on a napkin would have been easier.

It was all supposed to be in the job jacket. The instructions that the customer had given our salesperson said to create a 4 panel brochure using the information the customer had provided.

That information consisted of the following:

  • Two sheets of paper containing exactly 4 lines of text.
  • An address.
  • 3 digital product photos — 2.125 x 1.8 at 300 dpi
  • A competitor’s brochure that they “kind of liked.”

From this, we were to “create something that looks professional.” It occurred to me that Sean Connery would never have made a credible Bond without the dinner jacket and natty togs. Could Bond have really pulled it off dressed only in his boxers?

We created something very bare bones, representative of the instruction set that we were given. It’s gone out for proof with a bunch of notes on it and I can almost guarantee that it will come back with a frustrated comment from the customer that “this wasn’t at all what they were thinking.”

So the question is, “what were they thinking?” It is certainly a reasonable option to hire a graphic designer to create art for your project or commission a printshop to do layout. It is not rational to expect them to read your mind. As a customer, you cannot abdicate the responsibility of describing both what you want and what you would like to say. You don’t have to be an artist or even able to write in complete sentences, but you must somehow convey to the designer the ideas that you would like him, in turn, to convey in the publication or printed piece that you have commissioned.

It’s really not hard. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Create a dummy. Take a piece of paper and fold it up, then scribble notes on it.
  • Crayons really are OK. There’s no better way to communicate a rough design or color combination than to scratch it out.
  • It’s probably a very good idea to talk with the designer up front. Don’t be surprised if you have to schedule this and if there is a charge associated with it. For a freelance designer, time is money; and agencies and even printshops should value their design time highly. The time spent up front with the person who will create your piece is a good investment, though. And it’s much less expensive than the time spent going back and forth with multiple proofs.
  • Write it down if you can. If you can write copy, that’s great. If not, let your designer know that this is part of your expectation. If you can’t write it out, explain it well and let the designer take notes.

Sean Connery in Underwear

The “professional look” of the finished design will in the end be dependant as much upon your clarity and detail as upon the designer’s skills. Without your input and direction, your piece may have all of the impact and style of Sean Connery in bandoleros and red underwear.

Frightening, isn’t it?

Elevators Ascending

August 2, 2007

The lights are on and all elevators are ascending once again to the top floors of Adobe Systems. Displaying extraordinary common sense, and in recognition that customers might really matter after all, the Adobe execs have decided that linking our customers to Kinko’s/Fedex was perhaps not a wonderful idea after all. Here’s the link to What They Think , the printing industry’s website. Congratulations to Adobe for a return to rational thinking!  Guess I better head outside now and dumpster dive for my old Pagemaker CDs.