Clinton's Health Plan : Health Plan: A User's Guide : Reform Will Affect All Americans : SMALL BUSINESS OWNER : 'It may be impossible, but I will try'

Ivan Calderon, who moved from Mexico City to California when he was 15 years old, dreamed of owning his own restaurant after spending 23 years as a worker and food consultant in the Mexican food business in Orange County.

Now that he has his own small Mexican restaurant, he doesn't want that dream to be crushed by the weight of health insurance costs that President Clinton has proposed but Calderon says he cannot afford.

Calderon, 38, opened Taco Mesa, a Costa Mesa restaurant that seats 40 people, a little more than a year ago. He pays his eight full-time employees $7.50 an hour. No one, including himself, has medical insurance.

Insurance companies told him it would cost $4,000 a month to cover himself and his employees. That, he said, would probably drive him out of business.

"My prices would go way up," he said. "I know I would lose a lot of customers and probably the business as well."

To Calderon's dismay, Clinton's health care reform package would require that all businesses offer health insurance to their workers. Much of the financial burden of Clinton's plan would fall directly on businesses such as Calderon's--businesses large and small that do not now offer their employees health care benefits.

Employers would be required to pay 80% of the cost of an average health insurance plan for most employees, but somewhat less for those with working spouses. Federal subsidies would ensure that no company would have to pay more than 7.9% of their payroll costs toward health insurance; and for companies with fewer than 50 workers, the ceiling would be as low as 3.5% of payroll costs.

Cathy Hurwit, a Washington-based health care expert for Citizen Action, a consumer group, estimates it would cost Calderon $5,500 a year to provide comprehensive health insurance for his employees under the Clinton plan.

Calderon, who lives with his wife and three children in Huntington Beach, has just opened another Mexican restaurant in Fullerton, where he plans to employ four more workers. They, like Calderon and the staff of his first restaurant, are covered only by workers' compensation.

"Luckily," he said, "my wife has insurance benefits which cover me and the children."

It is also Calderon's good fortune that neither his family nor his workers have suffered any serious illnesses since his restaurant opened.

"I worry about the health of my family and workers all of the time," he said. "Now, I'm going to have a hard time sleeping if (Clinton's) bill goes through."

But he said he intends to try to hold onto his business even if the government requires him to pay for health insurance.

"I have come too far to just quit," he said. "It may be impossible, but I will try."

Calderon said coming to the United States provided him with education, opportunities and the confidence to succeed in business.

"When I first came to the United States from Mexico City, I worked hard since the age of 15 years old," he said. "But as a young worker I had more benefits than I do now."

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