Carter thinks that cost calculations may show many employers that they could save money by not offering insurance.
But she also thinks the vast majority of employers will decide to keep their coverage, partly because they compete for workers with other businesses. Providing insurance allows them to protect and retain their employees.
"Employers are wary of just dumping their employees on the exchange for fear it will be a mess," she said.
Other advisers cite tax advantages and penalties that include a fine of $3,000 for each employee who leaves a company plan that doesn't meet government standards and ends up in a subsidized plan on the exchange.
"I'm sure that some employers will decide to drop coverage this year," said Marian Mulkey of the California HealthCare Foundation. "I really think if they're thinking through all their options, most might look at it ... but they probably wouldn't do it."
If large companies save money by dropping insurance, it won't be much, said John J. Nelson, co-CEO of the Warner Pacific Insurance Services in Westlake Village that employs about 100 people. Providing insurance is about more than the bottom line, he said.
"You can't measure it in strict monetary terms," he said, noting that opting out is not an option at his company. "Morale is important. Security is important. How do you put a price on that?"
California Retail Systems in Ventura pays about $8,000 a month to cover its 11 employees. Because of its size, the company is exempt from the Obamacare mandate to cover insurance. And if prices continue to rise, the decision of whether to provide coverage may be made for them.
"It all depends on cost," said Lorraine Lisle, the company's assistant general manager, noting that a decision on next year's coverage hasn't been made. "We are taking this month by month."
The exchange includes an arm aimed at small businesses. As of Jan. 1, businesses with fewer than 50 employees can buy group insurance through the exchange. Some will qualify for a 50 percent federal tax credit.
If employers are confused about the options, so are their employees. Debbi Thompson, of Simi Valley, works for a manufacturer that may be small enough to be exempt from health care reform. She's not sure because she knows little about Obamacare and less about the online insurance marketplace.
What she does know is that she was paying $40 a month for insurance. Now she pays $88 a month.
"If it doubles again, I'm probably not going to be able to afford health care. It's ridiculous," she said, offering an option other than the Affordable Care Act. "Just don't get sick."
Paying the penalty
Businesses with 50 or more full-time equivalent employees will face fines for not providing coverage.
Those fines kick in if one full-time employee receives government subsidized care on the exchange. Subsidies start for people who make up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, meaning $92,200 for a family of four.
Penalties include a $2,000 fine for every full-time employee in a company. A business is exempt for its first 30 full-time employees.
If a company offers a plan that doesn't meet government standards, it faces a $3,000 fine for every full-time employee that goes to the exchange and receives subsidized coverage.
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