A steady rise in health insurance costs appears to be slowing down for business owners. But with several important changes still looming under the health care law, it’s unclear whether that will continue in the years ahead.

Health costs for employers increased only 3 percent last year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s recently released employer health benefits survey, matching the lowest annual growth rate since the group started tracking the numbers in 1999. Owners, especially those running small businesses, had historically been prone to double-digit increases from one year to the next.

It’s the second straight year that the annual growth rate has slowed, according to Kaiser, mirroring several other reports of health costs rising more modestly for private businesses — a pattern that Kaiser CEO Drew Altman called “good news for employers and workers.”

On one hand, the slowdown comes as a bit of a surprise, given that enrollment in new government-run insurance exchanges for small businesses — generally considered one of the health care law’s primary means of lowering rates for employers and the only way to secure some of the law’s new tax credits — has been very slow across the country. The Kaiser survey, which is based on responses from more than 3,000 firms, showed that only a tiny fraction of firms purchased plans through the new exchanges last year.

In addition, a new rule requiring many companies to provide comprehensive health plans were expected to increase costs for those that previously offered minimal or no insurance plans to their workers.

However, early renewal of existing health plans and a string of delays to that so-called “employer mandate” have allowed many firms to continue offering plans that do not comply with new minimum coverage requirements in the law. That has likely muted some of the rise in premiums we would otherwise see as employers shift to more robust, and thus more expensive, plans.

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Jeffrey R. Ungvary President

Jeffrey R. Ungvary