Health insurance costs for hvacr contractors have increased 61% during the last three years, according to a recent survey of Air Conditioning Contractors of America member companies.

On average, the 300 contractors surveyed nationwide paid 61% more for their employees' health insurance in this year than they did in 1999, and 63% have decreased the benefits available to employees in the last 3 years. Sixteen percent of those surveyed said they intended to decrease benefits in 2003.

"There is a health insurance crisis for small employers in the United States that must be addressed," said ACCA president and CEO Paul T. Stalknecht. "On average, large employers spend $1,000 less per employee on health insurance than small employers. This is a situation that is bad for working families and bad for communities."

Although ACCA did not release information on companies in specific regions of the country, it said contractors in the Southwest, Pacific Northwest and Mid-Atlantic appeared to be hit hardest.

Perhaps accounting for the decision to decrease benefits, contractors have held the line on costs passed on to employees - most still pay about 21% of the price of their health insurance, with the remainder picked up by their companies.

Overall, ACCA contractors spend about 7% of their operating expenses on heath care premiums, an 18% increase over the past two years.

Similar findings have also been reported by other construction organizations. Joe Rossmann, vice president of fringe benefits for the Associated Builders and Contractors, recently testified before Congress in support of the Small Business Health Fairness Act (H.R. 1774). The bill would permit small businesses to band together to create "association health plans" that supporters say would allow small businesses to offer benefits on a par with those offered by large companies or through union membership. The ACCA also supports the bill.

"Massive premium increases of 40%, 50% and higher and/or benefit reductions, are typical of what small businesses throughout our nation are experiencing today," Rossmann said. "Clearly, current initiatives aimed at expanding access to affordable health care are not working."

The creation of association health plans would reduce health insurance costs by 15% to 30%, Rossmann added.

Nationally, the number of Americans without health insurance now stands at 41.2 million, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.