As of January 1, 2015, companies with 100 or more (full-time equivalent) employees will have to offer them health benefits--or pay a price for not doing so. Accepting that Obamacare is here for real this time, a growing number of businesses are starting to focus on ways to thread the needle through the law's numerous loopholes, finding strategies that cut their premium costs as well as the number of people they have to foot the bill for--while still avoiding all or most employer penalties.  Here, three strategies to consider:  

1. Go "skinny." According to recent survey by National Business Group on Health, 16 percent of large employers will offer workers the option of signing up for so-called skinny insurance plans for 2015. These plans are designed to have cheap premiums, and they provide bare-bones benefits--generally, just preventative care, with no coverage for major illness, hospitalization, and other big-ticket expenditures.

This type of plan does not provide a high-enough level of coverage to meet the ACAs "minimum value" standard. So, if this were the only plan you offered to employees, they could potentially buy a plan through the public healthcare exchange instead. And if an employee qualifies for subsidies there, you--the employer--would be a hit with a $3,000 annual penalty for that person.

However, many employers--especially in industries like food and hospitality--are betting that low-wage workers will choose the company's bargain-basement coverage instead of ponying up for a plan via the public healthcare exchange. And thanks to an unintended loophole in the healthcare law, employers who offer skinny benefits are able to avoid the typically more painful non-coverage penalty. (The $2,000 annual penalty for non-coverage is based on total payroll, after the first 30 employees--so, a company of 100 that didn't offer any health benefits would have to pay annual penalties of $140,000.)

Some businesses are hedging their bets: offering skinny plans as well as more expensive, ACA-compliant plans for those workers who want to pay for more robust benefits. Though some employees may appreciate a health-insurance option that's dirt cheap and lets them avoid an individual penalty for going without health insurance ($325 per person in 2015), if you do choose to offer skinny benefits, you should be extremely clear in communicating to your workforce what they are (and are not) getting. You don't want to deal with the bad publicity--and potential lawsuit--when an employee gets hospitalized and suddenly realizes he or she has to pay all the expenses out of pocket, despite having insurance through work. This is a strategy to think through carefully, preferably with an experienced broker and maybe a lawyer, too.  

2. Look into Medicaid. Another way to cut the costs (yours and theirs) of covering lower-paid employees is to check if they qualify for Medicaid benefits. So far, a total of 27 states and the District of Columbia have opted to go ahead with some form of Medicaid expansion, which broadens eligibility to include most working-age adults earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level (about $33,000 in 2014, for a family of four). If you have employees who might qualify based on income, it's well worth it for you and them go through the eligibility paperwork.

If someone does turn out to be eligible for Medicaid, you as the employer must still offer insurance (or pay the penalty). But unless you're paying 100 percent of premiums for an employee's whole family, chances are he or she will opt for Medicaid, which has more robust coverage than most private employer plans. If you offer health benefits and an employee accepts Medicaid coverage instead, there's no penalty for you--and no premium to pay, either. Think of it as your tax dollars at work--working to cut your company's healthcare bill.  

3. Be your own insurer. Many large companies cover employees via self-insured health plans. Rather than paying premiums to an insurance company, they sock away cash into a pool to pay for their workers' actual health claims. Whatever is left over at the end of the year goes back into the company's coffers. To offset the risk of going too far over projected costs, most companies combine self-insurance with some kind of stop-loss coverage.

Self-insurance is inherently riskier than simply buying health coverage through an insurance company. And it requires a level of administration and financial planning that would be impractical at many smaller companies. But because of changes in the small-group health market brought about by the ACA, insurers and brokers are increasingly offering turnkey self-insurance products that are specifically designed for businesses with as few as 10 covered employees.  

In January 2014, the ACA started requiring insurers to set their small group rates (generally, groups under 50) using "adjusted community rating." This means that insurers can't consider health history (or factors such as occupation or gender) in determining premiums, as they could generally do in the past. Now, all small employers in a given geographic region get essentially the same deal, with some limited adjustments for age, family size, and tobacco use. This is great for companies with a history of expensive health claims, who can expect to see premiums drop. But a younger, healthier (and more male) company, which once benefited from preferential underwriting, could see premiums nearly double. In that situation, self-insurance may be worth considering, provided you can handle the risk of employees potentially needing costly medical procedures.

"There is not really a minimum viable company size guideline," says Mark Olson, a vice president for United Healthcare of Arizona. "However, the smaller the company is, the less predictable their claims are. Therefore, it becomes a question of what products are available and the company's appetite for risk versus reward."