Health Care, Infrastructure Concerns of Business Leaders at Griffin Jobs Conference

by Mark Carter  on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011 4:12 pm  

Business leaders who attended U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin's Second District Jobs Conference on Wednesday talked about the need for consumers to have more "skin in the game" regarding health-care reform and committing to infrastructure as a driver of economic development.

Griffin, a freshman Republican from Little Rock, invited more than 60 panelists representing public and private interests in the Second District to the all-day event.

Discussions focused on:

  • Agriculture, energy and the environment
  • Health care
  • Aerospace, transportation and infrastructure
  • Education, manufacturing and technology
  • Real estate, retail and financial services

The goal? Identify obstacles facing job creators, opportunities for creating jobs in Arkansas and public policies to encourage private-sector job creation.

Griffin called President Barack Obama's jobs package, defeated last week in Congress, an "elixir that's not going to fix the economy."

Griffin said that while addressing infrastructure needs represents an important economic driver, "we can't be under the illusion that's all we need to do to fix the economy."

Griffin said Americans don't expect Congress to balance the budget or fix any problems overnight. "But they need to know you're on the right trajectory," he said. "There's no plan in place on that right now."

Health Care

Griffin said he wanted the conference to create a conversation with "job creators" over how to create local jobs in the current economic environment. Any such debate, he stressed, must include health care.

"All employers are impacted by health care," he said. "The broad issue of health care is important to all job creators, and health care has to be addressed if we're going to address our rising deficit."

Health-care panelists included:

  • Dan Rahn, chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
  • David Berry, senior vice president and COO at Arkansas Children's Hospital.
  • Arkansas Surgeon General Joe Thompson.

Also represented on the health-care panel were Baptist Health, St. Vincent Health Systems, QualChoice, Community Health Centers of Arkansas, Arkansas Surgical Hospital, Stephens Insurance, the Arkansas Nurses Association, USA Drug, the central Arkansas IHOP franchise and DataPath.

Health-care panelists agreed that more emphasis should be placed on wellness programs and preventative medicine; that individuals should have more "skin in the game" through wellness benefits and even rewards for good health such as premium deductions; that employers should be afforded more flexibility; and that regulatory clarity is needed more than ever.

Susan Gunaca, owner of 10 IHOP restaurants in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Benton, Bryant, Conway, Searcy, Russellville and Fayetteville, said a growing chunk of her time, perhaps even the majority of it, is devoted to unemployment appeals and navigating government regulations.

"As a business owner today, I'm in a constant posture of defense," she said.

Gunaca employs about 500 people and given the turnover in the restaurant business, is "constantly hiring."

Full health benefits are offered to management-level employees and used as an incentive to others, she said. If the current health-reform law remains in tact, Gunaca said she'll end up having to cut jobs because she won't be able to afford to insure all her part-time employees.


Panelists discussing infrastructure included:

  • Arkansas Highway Commissioner John Burkhalter.
  • Arkansas Trucking Association president Lane Kidd.
  • Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Also represented were Union Pacific, Nabholz Construction, the Little Rock Port Authority, Little Rock National Airport, Mobley Contractors, Lexicon and Maverick USA.

Panelists agreed the crumbling U.S. infrastructure, a big chunk of the stimulus package, must be addressed.

"We have to have the political will to invest in our infrastructure," said Burkhalter, former chairman of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. "But the funding mechanism for highways in this country is systematically flawed."

Griffin advocated more use of the Arkansas River. He supports dredging the river to 12 feet, and noted Welspun's selection of the Little Rock Port for its pipe manufacturing facility was based on the capacity of the barges that could deliver material up river.

"Welspun picked Little Rock because they count on that river," he said.

Burkhalter also focused on the river. He would like to develop a marina and multi-family housing development on its bank next to the Clinton Library.

Burkhalter said he expects to have all permits issued through the Corps of Engineers by the end of the year, and for construction to begin within 60 days of the permits being issued. Burkhalter is financing all construction of the planned $250 million project, which will be located on 16 and a half acres leased from the city of Little Rock.

He envisions a marina that could accommodate 450 boats, multiple multi-family dwellings and three-story office buildings.

Construction alone, he said, could add several hundred local jobs.



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