As Congress nears votes on legislation that would overhaul the health care system, many small businesses say they are facing the steepest rise in insurance premiums they have seen in recent years.
Insurance brokers and benefits consultants say their small business clients are seeing premiums go up an average of about 15 percent for the coming year — double the rate of last year’s increases. That would mean an annual premium that was $4,500 per employee in 2008 and $4,800 this year would rise to $5,500 in 2010.
The higher premiums at least partly reflect the inexorable rise of medical costs, which is forcing Medicare to raise premiums, too. Health insurance bills are also rising for big employers, but because they have more negotiating clout, their increases are generally not as steep.
Higher medical costs aside, some experts say they think the insurance industry, under pressure from Wall Street, is raising premiums to get ahead of any legislative changes that might reduce their profits.
The increases come at a politically fraught time for the insurers, as they try to fight off the creation of a government-run competitor and as they push their case that they have a central role to play in controlling the nation’s health care costs.
President Obama, in his Saturday radio address, said the Democrats’ health insurance overhaul would help small businesses and stimulate the economy by providing relief from “the crushing costs of health care — costs that have forced too many small businesses to cut benefits, shed jobs, or shut their doors for good.”
The insurance industry has already been under sharp attack by Democratic lawmakers who favor creating a government-run insurance plan that would compete with private insurers. Without that competition, proponents say, insurers will continue to price coverage beyond the reach of many Americans.
Small businesses, which employ about 40 percent of the private labor force, are a big constituency for both parties.
The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, said the sharp rise in premiums for small businesses offered the latest evidence that Congress must act swiftly on health care legislation.
“This underlines the urgent need for health insurance reform, including a public option,” she said in an interview. “We need to have competition for the insurance companies to keep premiums down.”
Insurers say there is no need for a government-run insurance plan and argue that their health plans are already responsible for many of the initiatives, like programs to coordinate care for chronic conditions, that ultimately lower costs.
Insurers’ “profits are not responsible for increased health care costs,” said Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for the industry’s trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans.
Like the insurers, Republican lawmakers, who portray themselves as champions of small business, argue that the proposed legislation would raise premiums across the board because sick people would be more likely to enroll than healthy people.
They also say the taxes and other ways of paying for the program would be passed on to employers in higher premiums, only making matters worse for small businesses.
The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said in a response to the president’s radio address, “We can’t support a bill that will raise premiums.” The big insurance companies declined to comment.
With negotiations over next year’s premiums still under way, data on rate increases are mostly anecdotal. Formal surveys have not yet been completed by the health benefits consultants who track the figures. And in some parts of the country, experts say rates are not overly high.
But benefits consultants say there is no doubt that premiums are soaring for many small businesses. Edward Kaplan, a consultant with the Segal Company, said his clients were seeing renewals for coverage at prices 15 to 23 percent higher this year. Last year, he said, they typically faced increases of 7 to 12 percent.
The brokers and consultants say the price jumps seem hard to justify. “Frankly, I’m mystified by the size of the increases,” said one broker, Charles J. Newman, who works with small employers in the New York area.
Some say the threat of an overhaul may be at least part of the reason. Joshua Miley, a consultant with HighRoads, which analyzes benefit information for employers, said the “undercurrent of health reform is driving part of the renewal increases.”
HighRoads projects that premiums will rise 14.4 percent for an individual in a health maintenance organization plan at a typical small employer.
There is no question that insurers are under pressure from Wall Street. In recent years, insurers were often not quick enough to raise their premiums well above the rising cost of medical care.
But they have heard from angry investors disappointed by the companies’ earnings.
“There’s no one out there who hasn’t had to do a mea culpa to Wall Street,” said Sheryl Skolnick, an analyst for Pali Capital who follows the companies. While the industry is particularly vulnerable now in Washington, she said, “it seems like they’re more afraid of Wall Street.”
Michael A. Turpin, a former senior executive for UnitedHealth, the insurer, and now a top official at USI Holdings , an insurance brokerage firm, said insurers were now “under so much pressure to post earnings, they’re going to make hay while the sun is shining.”
Along with many Republican lawmakers, the insurers say the current Congressional proposals do too little to address the underlying reasons for high premiums — the unabated rise in medical costs and effects of a weak economy. Hospitals, for example, have been treating greater numbers of people who have lost their jobs and their insurance, and they are passing along some of those costs by charging higher prices to private insurers.
The industry also points to low government payments to hospitals and doctors, which insurers say result in higher prices for employer-based coverage to make up for the shortfall.
In an analysis released two weeks ago by America’s Health Insurance Plans, insurers said premiums would rise even faster under the legislation under study in Congress — an assessment fiercely disputed by Democratic Congressional leaders and some health care economists but shared by many Republicans.
Small businesses, besides having less negotiating leverage than big employers, tend to pay more for the same coverage because they cannot spread the cost of expensive medical conditions or hospitalizations over large numbers of workers. Premiums can be especially high if they have sick or older workers.
Owners of small companies say the lack of options is why they have been paying increasingly higher premiums for less and less coverage — this year perhaps more than ever.
In August, when Walter Rowen, who owns Susquehanna Glass in Columbia, Pa., sought to renew his company’s coverage for two dozen employees, he said his insurer demanded a 160 percent rate increase. Mr. Rowen said he was told his work force was “getting too old and very expensive.”
Mr. Rowen said his insurance broker found that any other health plan was likely to charge 30 to 50 percent more than he paid last year. He chose a less generous plan from a different carrier for 44 percent more.
David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.