PORTLAND, Maine — On average, insurers in Maine are seeking smaller increases to health insurance premiums for small businesses in 2015 than in the past decade, when annual increases have most often been in the double-digits.

The filings for 2015 still require state and federal review, but the first look at rates proposed by the five insurers planning to offer small group insurance next year in Maine show rate proposals for the first quarter of 2015 will rise 5.7 percent from the first quarter of 2014. Premiums have increased by at least 10 percent annually for the past seven years.

“At a high level, I can say what I’m looking at on paper is good news for small businesses,” said Joe Ditre, of the Augusta-based advocacy group Consumers for Affordable Health Care.

The average rate increase figures give a sense of how much more money the entire small group market stands to spend on health care costs. It doesn’t reflect what each business owner will experience.

“I think companies just kind of brace themselves for the annual quote from their brokers or agents and then see how they can handle it,” said David Clough, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “That’s been going on for a number of years.”

Clough said the latest proposed changes are “potentially encouraging.”

“I’m not hearing a reaction yet,” Clough said of the rate changes proposed earlier this month. “Reaction is more likely to come when policyholders get the policy notice. That’s when they’re going to find out how does this affect me and my business and my employees.”

Rates from the nonprofit insurer Maine Community Health Options are set to decrease an average of 10 percent across its 1,090 small group policyholders. It’s the largest proposed drop of any small-group insurer. An MCHO spokesman declined to discuss reasons for the proposed rates until the rates receive approval from regulators.

Anthem, which has the largest share of small group policyholders in the state, has proposed rates for the first quarter of 2015 that would represent a 6.7 percent average increase, where the range of rate changes would span a 16 percent increase to a 2.3 percent decrease.

Each insurer’s proposals are weighted by the number of policyholders affected and include a range for the maximum and minimum change a policyholder would see under the proposal.

Proposed rate changes for Aetna’s preferred provider organization plan, for example, range from a 31.5 percent increase to an 8.8 percent decrease across its pool of 1,356 small group policyholders. The company also plans to add a new health management organization, or HMO, plan to its small group offerings in 2015.

That and the opening of the federal marketplace for small group insurance under the Affordable Care Act will hand Maine employers more insurance choices than they’ve had in recent years. Maine is one of the states where employers will select plans through the federal Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP, exchange.

On that federal marketplace, companies with fewer than 25 full-time workers who make an average of $50,000 a year and pay at least half of their employees’ healthcare premiums stand to receive tax credits for their plans. That category could be a large portion of Maine employers. More than 85 percent of nonfarm payroll employers have fewer than 20 employees, according to 2011 census figures.

“If you’re not getting a tax credit, it probably doesn’t look any different to you and it probably doesn’t make a difference and then you would go on or off [the marketplace],” Ditre said.

While Maine’s small-group market includes employers with 50 or fewer workers, the SHOP exchange will be open to employers 100 or fewer workers.

Not all of the insurers will offer plans on the federal exchange. Anthem, Maine Community Health Options and Harvard Pilgrim’s HMO plan will be sold on and off the federal exchange. Aetna’s plans and Harvard Pilgrim’s PPO plan will be sold off the exchange.

Ditre said some insurers decided to avoid the marketplace in the coming year because of uncertainty about the overall risk pool and technological challenges to make back-end systems work with the federal marketplace.

Clough expects that range of options will cause many employers to re-evaluate their options.

“It might be a time for business owners to shop for their own policies and that will create a new experience,” Clough said.

Doug Dunbar, spokesman for the state’s Bureau of Insurance, said the review process at the state level could take another two to three months. Plans proposed for the federal exchange will require additional review by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services before they are sold.

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.