July 12, 2005--In response to rising health-care premiums and an increasingly uninsured population, advocates of a universal health care system are renewing their efforts to pass legislation that would enact universal health care covered by tax revenues.

Currently, bills have been introduced in 18 state legislatures calling for a universal health care plan. Small business owners who provide health insurance plans to their employees are paying particular attention to the debate, as a universal health-care system could help alleviate some of the rising costs employer-sponsored plans are facing.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, an organization that analyzes health care issues, premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance rose by 11.2% in 2004, the fourth consecutive year of double-digit growth, causing coverage to drop from 68% to 63% since 2001. Some employers are also being forced to raise employee contributions and decrease benefits.

"The problem seems to keep getting bigger," said Larry Levitt, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "Most small business owners would like to see their employees insured. However, many are having a hard time figuring out a way to make that happen."

John Shiels, a vice president of the Lewin Group, a Virginia consulting firm, explained that the benefits of universal coverage to small business owners would depend on how the plan was implemented. "It depends on who is paying for it," said Shiels. "If the government imposes a payroll tax to fund the plan, the benefit to small businesses wouldn't be too great. If it was levied on the workers, owners would probably see more of a benefit."

Apart from universal coverage, many small business owners are calling for associated health plans that would provide lower cost coverage through a networking system. "I think we will begin to see more associated plans in the upcoming years," according to Levitt. "However, there are winners and losers in associated plans as well." Levitt mentioned that employers with an aging or sick workforce would face heavier premiums than employers with a healthier workforce.

One such program has been in effect in Maine since January. Adam Thompson, a spokesman for the Maine Governor's Office for Health Policy and Finance, said the program is off to a successful start, with over 2,000 small businesses enrolled. "The majority of Maine's uninsured either work for small businesses or are self-employed, so that was an obvious place for us to start our push for full insurance coverage for the state of Maine," he said. Maine's state-private program "provides a good balance between what employers can afford to pay and what employees can afford to pay," added Thompson.