The Gap Widens

Health insurance out of reach for more business owners


When Holly John got a cough or cold as a kid, her mom took her to the doctor. A generation later, health care isn't as simple.

Holly and Steve John do not have health insurance. Their three children, including an asthmatic daughter, are uninsured. And the employees of their construction business go without insurance.

The Johns don't skip health insurance benefits in an effort boost the bottom line. For them, it's not a matter of profit, it's a matter of survival. The cost of employee heath insurance could sink their business.

"The rates were astronomical, way out of reach," Holly John says of their hunt for employee health insurance.

A report recently released by the Idaho Community Action Network found that in Idaho, increasing numbers are falling into a health care "gap"--going without health care because they either have no insurance, or their insurance does not adequately pay for services. The report notes that small businesses do not provide heath insurance for their employees for a variety of reasons. But the lack of affordable, quality insurance is the chief reason.

"It really highlights that there is a problem right here in Idaho," says Taryn Magrini, organizer with the Idaho Community Action Network.

The study surveyed 388 small businesses in Idaho and the Northwest and found that insurance premiums and deductibles have increased faster for small businesses compared with large businesses.

John's children, ages 3, 4 and 5 had insurance through the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) two years ago. But the family lost that when their income went up and they no longer qualified for the program.

"I think it's such a dire situation that people don't expect to have health insurance." Holly John said. "I find it really sad that they don't think they deserve health insurance. And these are young guys with families."

The ICAN study notes that about 40 percent of small business employers in the Northwest did not provide health insurance to their employees in 2004. In 2000, 30 percent of small businesses did not provide health insurance. The study was co-authored by the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations and Aaron Katz of the University of Washington.

About 16 million working-age adults were underinsured in 2003, according to the study.

For now, the family's primary care provider is a hotline that connects Holly John to a nurse who can help answer basic health questions. They have considered purchasing catastrophic health insurance. It's not exactly the comprehensive care she grew up with.