Rick Kislia, CEO of Crescent Laundry, an 85-employee commercial laundry based in Davenport, Iowa, has been forced by astronomically high rate hikes to switch health-insurance carriers twice during the past five years. Here's Kislia's advice on timing those switches to obtain rock-bottom prices without alienating the local insurance community:

Survey the marketplace annually. "The availability of coverage really can change," says Kislia, especially if a new insurance company enters your local market and forces the competition to lower prices.

By shopping aggressively during just such a period, Crescent was able to choose between carriers that actually wanted its business, while avoiding a more-than-30% rate hike. (Don't worry about being branded disloyal. If you make your switch during such a period, carriers in the industry are likely to point the finger at the insurer that forced rate reductions.)

Another good time to switch is when existing local carriers lower rates to target companies of your size.

Obtain independent insurance advice. "Rather than just following whatever your broker suggests, it pays to investigate all your options through independent sources," says Kislia.

His strategy: use an independent benefits consultant to survey the region; then check recommendations against surveys from business magazines or trade groups on current price levels. For most companies, it makes sense to rely on an independent consultant for leads, at a cost of $1,000 to $3,000; then purchase coverage through one broker if you're satisfied with the way that broker handles paperwork and questions.

-- Jill Andresky Fraser

* * *