Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Economic Development Rx

By Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant.

Friday, the Supreme Court decided to uphold the health-care law. In the last few days, there have been a slew of articles about what it will mean—what it will mean for people’s lives, for health insurance companies, health insurance brokers, for hospitals, doctors, nurses, etc. But, what will it mean for economic development?

Well, first of all, if the projections are right, it means we’re going to need a lot more doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. Considering the current shortages, and the short time frame for implementing the law, it means every community, even those who aren’t directly targeting the health care sector, will need to focus on attracting (and even “growing”) more health care professionals. In most communities, health care is a huge economic driver and despite bad economic times the health care industry continues to hire.

So, there’s the direct effect of creating jobs, which is always a goal of economic development, but there are other, maybe less thought about, effects too.

As economic development continues to broaden its scope to include more and more community development efforts, we economic developers become increasingly concerned with quality of life. Because, after all, it isn’t just money we want it’s a vibrant community full of happy, healthy, gainfully employed people. Whatever else the health care bill is or may do, its aim is to make the people in communities across America healthier. And, a healthier community is a more vibrant and more productive one (see Christa’s 2009 blog post, “An apple a day keeps unemployment away”).

There’s another part of this law, though, that may make local economic developers wary. While medical professionals seem mostly positive about the law being upheld, small business owners are, well, mixed. Starting in 2014, small businesses with 50 or more employees will have to provide medical coverage for employees. Business lobbyists worry that this will be a disincentive for hiring and growth on the part of small business owners, effectively stunting the growth potential of America’s entrepreneurs.

As economic development professionals, we’re used to seeing the good possibilities with the bad when it comes to public policies. This law could bring increased prosperity or disaster. It could mean so many different things for our economic future. At this stage, it’s pretty unclear what its long-term effects will be, but that’s where economic development comes in.

It’s our job to make plans in the face of uncertainty that attempt to increase the chances of prosperity and decrease the chances of disaster. So, now we’ve got to get to planning.