Small Employers and Health Insurance and State Reforms of Small Group Health Insurance – Fact Sheet

Small Employers and Health Insurance

Nearly half of all uninsured workers are either self-employed or work for firms with fewer than 25 employees; another 14% are in firms with 25-99 workers (EBRI, 1996). Differences in health coverage depending on the size and type of businesses have existed for years. Today, only half of small businesses sponsor health benefits.

Health insurance among small employers has changed dramatically during the first half of the 1990s, however. More are offering coverage and there has also been a major shift in the nature of health coverage. Now two-thirds of small firms offering insurance provide coverage through a managed care plan. This contrasts sharply with a few years ago when small employer offerings of health maintenance organizations (HMOs), preferred provider organizations (PPOs), and point-of-service plans (POSs) were relatively rare.

Who Offers Coverage?

Fifty-three percent of businesses with less than 50 employees offered health insurance in 1995. Firms with more employees, those that are incorporated, and firms that are older are much more likely to sponsor insurance.

Within nearly all sizes of small firms, health coverage declined between 1989 and 1991, due largely to the economic recession. The improving economy and to a small extent, state reforms in the small group market, are responsible for the increase in coverage since then (Figure 1).


The Changing Nature of Coverage Provided

Between 1993 and 1995 many small businesses began offering managed care plans for the first time. By 1995 managed care became the dominant form of health coverage in the small group market, covering 70% of all workers insured through small firms, from only 27% just two years earlier (Figure 2).


Small firms have shifted to managed care plans for a combination of reasons: the limited nature of their previous conventional coverage, the rising price of such plans relative to managed care premiums, and the expansion of managed care plans into the small group market.

It is still the case however, that most small businesses that offer insurance offer only one plan. Today that plan is much more likely to be a managed care plan rather than conventional insurance (i.e., indemnity or fee-for-service). Only 10% of insured workers in small firms are offered a choice of plans, whereas in firms with 200 or more workers, 84% can choose from a menu of plans.

Why More Small Firms Don’t Sponsor Insurance

Small firms choose not to provide health benefits for many different reasons. Most small businesses (83%) say it is because premiums are too high (Figure 3). Additional reasons include: the firm’s profits are too uncertain to commit to it, health insurance is not a high priority among its workers, or the administrative burden would be too great. The problem is not a lack of opportunity to buy coverage. Most uninsured firms report they are inundated with solicitations to purchase a plan.


Studies of insurance demand suggest that small firms are extremely price sensitive, e.g., a 5% decrease in price would result in a 10-15% increase in the likelihood of purchasing a plan. On the other hand, recent evaluations of several state subsidy programs for small businesses have found that these programs did not spur much new coverage.

The findings from these demonstration projects however, may have resulted from a lack of knowledge about the programs, the short-term nature of the subsidies, and in some instances, the fact that no premium subsidy was provided for insuring the business-owner and his or her family, rather, only employees’ premiums were eligible for a subsidy.

Policies Available in the Small Group Market


Health insurance has become more accessible to small firms in recent years. Fewer firms in 1995 said that an inability to qualify for group coverage was a major barrier to their offering a plan (46% vs. 54% in 1993). Fewer also reported that particular workers or their dependents were being excluded from the company plan due to poor health. One reason for these changes is that many states enacted “guaranteed issue” legislation in the early 1990s. Another reason is that more HMOs have expanded into the small group market and since most HMOs are federally qualified, they must guarantee the issue and renewal of their policies to all within the market.


Overall, the gap between the cost-sharing provisions in small and large firms plans is narrower than it was just a few years ago. Average deductibles for conventional insurance have actually fallen for small businesses. This is partly a result of the shift to managed care because many of the conventional plans that small firms dropped had higher-than-average deductibles. While small firms’ deductibles are still higher than those in large firms, the gap has narrowed since 1993. At the same time, copayments in HMOs offered by small firms have increased significantly. Copayments of $10 to $20 per visit are now the norm, instead of $3 to $9 per visit, as in 1993. Small firms’ copays are still higher than those of large firms, but the differences are not that large.


Small businesses have also made changes in their premium-sharing arrangements since 1993. Significantly fewer workers are being asked to contribute toward premiums, however the average percent contribution among those required to contribute has risen (Figure 4.)

Figure 4
Premium-Sharing in Small Firms (<50 Employees), 1993 and 1995
Single Coverage: 1993 1995 Percent of workers required to contribute to single coverage premium 49% 30% Avg. contribution as a percent of single premium (among those required to contribute) 39% 44% Family Coverage: 1993 1995 Percent of workers required to contribute towards family coverage premium 59% 46% Avg. contribution as a percent of family premium (among those required to contribute) 47% 54%
Source: 1993 and 1995 Wayne State University Survey of Employer Sponsored Health Benefits in Small Firms

  • The provision of health insurance has increased among small firms in the first half of the 1990s. While encouraging, it is still the case that close to half of small firms do not sponsor coverage, and for them, price is paramount to offering coverage.
  • So many small firms switched to managed care between 1993 and 1995, it became the dominant form of small business health coverage.
  • Unlike large firms, the vast majority of small firms offer only a single health plan– most often, a managed care product. Thus, workers in small firms lack a choice of health plans and are limited also on their choice of providers. In other respects, however, the differences between small and large firm coverage are narrowing.
  • Fewer workers in small firms have to contribute toward premiums, but workers’ average contributing share (among those asked to pay) has risen.
  • Access to health insurance plans has improved. Between 1993 and 1995, fewer small firms said they were being denied coverage, or that particular workers or their dependents were excluded from the company plan due to poor health.

Funding for the sources of information on this fact sheet and the 1995 Survey of Small Businesses was provided by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation:

  • GA Jensen, MA Morrisey, S Gafney, and DK Liston, “The New Dominance of Managed Care: Insurance Trends in the 1990s,” Health Affairs, January/February 1997, 16 (1), pp. 125-136.
  • MA Morrisey and GA Jensen, “Switching to Managed Care in the Small Employer Market,” Inquiry, Fall 1997, 34 (3), forthcoming.
  • GA Jensen and MA Morrisey, “Managed Care and the Small Group Market,” in MA Morrisey (ed.), Managed Care and Changing Health Care Markets. Washington, DC: AEI Press, forthcoming 1998.

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Small Employers: Health Insurance Coverage and the Impact of State Reforms:
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