"We don't know if it's a timeout, or if it's reached some natural limit," said Altman. "It's really something to watch for in the future because (high deductible plans) have an impact both on people's budgets and on holding down overall costs."
The survey's focus on health insurance provided to lower-wage workers highlights one of the major areas of uncertainty around Obama's health care law.
If the president is reelected and the law goes into full effect, employers with lots of low-wage workers may be tempted to drop coverage and send their employees into new state-based insurance exchanges, markets that will offer taxpayer-subsidized private insurance. A separate survey this summer by the Mercer benefits consulting firm found that 9 percent of employers in the retail and hospitality industries say it's likely they will drop coverage, even if they have to pay penalties to the government.
The survey found that workers in lower-wage companies pay $4,977 toward the cost of family coverage, as compared to an average of $4,316 for all workers. And the policy they get for their money is less generous, typically worth about $1,000 less.
"They are really paying more and getting less," said Altman.
Most experts believe the sluggish economy provides the likeliest explanation for the moderate rise in premiums. Last year's spike was blamed on a mistaken bet by insurers that the economy would recover faster.
The survey includes more than 2,000 small and large employers. Asked what kind of increase they're expecting for 2013, employers said their best estimate at this point is 7 percent — sure to prompt more pain.
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