More workers at small businesses will get medical insurance thanks to healthcare reform, study predicts

It’s been nearly six months since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 was signed into law, and it’s still pretty unpopular. The Kaiser Health Tracking Poll for August found that 45% of Americans surveyed said they have a “somewhat unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” view of the law, compared with 43% who like it. A consensus of recent polls compiled by shows even more negativity – 48% of Americans oppose the law, compared with only 42% who favor it.

But those numbers might shift once the law goes into effect and the controversial health insurance exchanges are up and running.

An economist and two health policy researchers at the nonprofit Rand Corp. conducted a simulation to predict what is likely to happen once employers are able to offer coverage through these exchanges. Overall, they estimate that the proportion of U.S. workers who will have access to health insurance through their jobs will jump from 84.6% to 94.6%. That works out to 13.6 million additional workers having the option to buy affordable health plans.

Most of that bump is likely to come from smaller businesses with 50 or fewer employees. Today, only 60.4% of these employees can get health insurance through their jobs. Once the exchanges are functioning, the Rand researchers forecast that 85.9% of small business employees will have the option of buying health plans at work – an increase of 10.5 million workers.

Part of the reason for that growth is that the policies that will be offered through the exchanges will be less expensive, the researchers said. Small companies will be able to band together to pool their risk, which will give them more leverage to bargain with insurance companies. It also means their premiums should be more stable from year to year.

The exchanges will have a much smaller impact on larger firms, with 3.2 million additional employees gaining access to employer-sponsored health insurance.

The study was published online Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine.

-- Karen Kaplan/Los Angeles Times