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Affordable health insurance still a challenge for small-business owners

Small-business owners had several things to be thankful for in 2007.

For example, they're grateful that Congress didn't pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have gutted employees' right to a secret ballot when choosing whether or not they want to join a union.

They're also grateful that when Congress voted to increase the minimum wage, legislators included tax incentives to ease the pain of the cost increases and enable entrepreneurs to preserve jobs.

But the one thing small-business owners are most grateful for is the opportunity to live and work in a free-enterprise system that allows them to grow their businesses. Despite the gloomy economic headlines you may have read, 2007 was a good year for small businesses.

The latest reports on private-sector employment showed that small businesses created 113,000 new jobs in the month of October. More than half of those jobs63,000were created in businesses with less than 50 employees. What's more, the increase to 113,000 new jobs was a marked improvement over the average of 43,000 jobs created the previous three months. While all this growth was happening, large employers cut a net of 7,000 jobs.

Small businesses truly are this country's economic engine. And we want to keep our financial environment favorable for entrepreneurial growth.

For that dream to remain true, small-business owners must have their number one wish granted: affordable health insurance.

We continue to hear from entrepreneurs about the difficulties they have finding health plans that they can affordfor themselves, as well as their employees. In this highly competitive market for qualified workers, health plans are an important benefit offering for owners seeking to fill all those jobs they're creating.

Yet the problem just keeps getting worse. According to the annual National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans, conducted by national consulting firm Mercer, total health benefit costs for all businesses rose by 6.1 percent in 2007. That's more than twice the rate of inflation, and small businesses report even higher rates of increases into the double-digits.

Health costs to business owners now average $7,983 per employee, clearly outpacing wages and other expenses, cutting into business' ability to make investments for future job growth. There are further consequences as well. Small employers continue to drop their health insurance plans. Just 61 percent of employers with fewer than 200 employees offered health coverage in 2007, down from 63 percent last year and 66 percent five years ago. That means more employees and their dependents are part of the growing number of uninsured Americans.

We simply must find both the means and the political will to address this issue, or we risk falling into a stagnant economy. If we're going to turn desire into reality, we'll need policymakers who are committed to hard work, creative thinking, open minds and above all, a spirit of cooperation.

- Todd Stottlemyer is president and CEO of the National Federation of Independent Business in Washington, D.C.

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