The Affordable Care Act so far has not prompted the nation’s employers to drop health benefits for some or all of their workers as critics of the law had predicted, according to two major surveys released Wednesday.
A year after the advent of new insurance marketplaces for individuals and small businesses under the health-care law, just 1 percent of employers said they have decided to stop offering health coverage for 2015, one survey said. There was relatively little difference between larger employers and those with fewer than 50 workers, which qualify for new small-business marketplaces, known as SHOPs, that are part of the health-care law.
That survey of more than 3,000 employers, conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management, also found relatively little tendency for companies to narrow the groups offered coverage. One in 12 employers said they are eliminating coverage for workers’ spouses, while 1 in 76 said they are dropping insurance for part-time employees.
The findings indicate, however, that more large employers than small ones are changing their rules so that employees’ spouses can no longer get coverage or must pay more for health plans. Still, fewer than 10 percent of the companies with at least 50 workers are retracting coverage in those ways.
A separate survey, conducted annually by the consulting firm Mercer, found a similar pattern: Fewer employers said they are likely to drop health benefits within the next five years than was the case in Mercer’s most recent previous survey.
Mercer’s research also suggests that, as in the past, larger employers are more wedded to providing insurance for their workers than are small businesses. Coverage has often been more expensive for small firms because they are spreading the risk of big medical bills among fewer workers. The latest Mercer survey, completed by about 2,500 employers, indicates that 4 percent of large employers are likely to drop coverage within the next five years, compared with 16 percent of employers with fewer than 199 workers.
The Mercer survey suggests that, overall, the average cost of health benefits for an employee this year is about $11,000 and that the cost next year will increase, on average, by 4.6 percent. Although that increase is slightly greater than it was this year, it remains less than the typical increase of 7 percent per year over the past 15 years.
The business community and other critics predicted in recent years that the 2010 health-care law would disrupt the tradition over several generations in which most Americans with health insurance buy it as part of the benefits that come with their jobs.
The health-care law compels employers with 50 or more workers to offer health insurance to most of their full-time workers or to pay a fine. The Obama administration postponed that aspect of the law, and it is now scheduled to be phased in starting next year.
The requirement on employers is widely resented by businesses and their advocates in Washington. As the legislation was being debated in Congress, for instance, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce predicted that the law would motivate employers to outsource some of their work to non-employees to sidestep the requirement. And a widely cited 2011 consultant’s study forecast that nearly one-third of companies would stop offering employer-sponsored coverage once the new insurance marketplaces created by the law — known as “exchanges” — opened this year.
But the new surveys suggest that “so far, the changes are marginal,” said Paul Fronstin, a researcher at the Employee Benefit Research Institute. He speculated that, as the economy has improved and unemployment has lessened, a tighter job market may be motivating employers to keep benefits for workers.
Still, Fronstin said, past changes in the nature of health insurance suggest that it evolves gradually and that employers may still gravitate away from providing coverage once they become more accustomed to the shifts brought about by the health-care law. “Every major trend in health benefits plays out in years, if not decades,” he said.