Small-business health insurance is still crazy expensive

Plus: New name for Panthers practice bubble; Q&A with local Twitter sensation CLT Development; Has Charlotte reached peak PR and marketing?

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New N.C. law intends to help lower insurance costs for small businesses, but relief won’t come soon

Health coverage seems as though it’s not working for anybody. Premiums and deductibles keep rising. After going to the doctor, you brace for how much the bill is going to be — even if you have insurance.

But there’s another group struggling with healthcare costs, too: small businesses. Many of them want to offer health coverage to their employees but find the costs mind-blowing.

New N.C. law: Last month, the N.C. General Assembly passed a bipartisan law allowing business associations like chambers of commerce to offer health plans to their members. The thinking was that by banding small companies together, associations could gain negotiating leverage and offer cheaper plans to small businesses. Association health plans could also provide another insurance option to the self-employed and independent contractors — like Realtors or electricians.

Employers heard about the legislation and have started calling insurance brokers and local associations, asking when the new plans will be available. The answer: not anytime soon.

“People think that now that the legislation has been passed that things are going to move quickly,” said Tony Gutierrez, a spokesman with the N.C. Association of Health Underwriters, in an interview with the Ledger. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case.”

The future of association health plans is tied up in a federal court case that probably won’t be resolved for months. Eleven states and the District of Columbia are suing the Trump Administration over new rules the Labor Department wrote loosening restrictions on the ability of associations to offer health plans. They worry that under the revised rules, associations would offer plans that are too meager.

Until the suit is resolved, no associations in North Carolina are going to offer health plans, insurance brokers say. They’re not anticipating any movement on association health plans until the end of 2020 at the earliest.

In context: Healthcare costs are one of the top issues bedeviling small businesses. They’re high for all employers of all sizes, but smaller companies are particularly unable to shoulder the burden. In 2018, just 54% of businesses with three to 49 workers offered health insurance, compared with 96% of companies with 100+ workers, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Consider:

  • The average annual company contribution for family health-insurance coverage was $19,616 per worker in 2018 — 55% more than 10 years ago, according to Kaiser Family Foundation figures.

  • A Realtor with a family of four who makes $100,000 a year receives no government subsidies for health insurance and can expect to pay $18,000 to $20,400 for health coverage for a plan with a $7,900 annual deductible, according to Hughes Waren, an insurance broker in Wilmington who spoke with the Ledger.

  • A Ledger reader who owns a business in Matthews said he looked online for health coverage recently for his two full-time employees. UnitedHealthcare was offering a plan that would cost $54,000 a year to cover the two workers and their families. The plans had $6,000 annual deductibles. “I cannot entertain the idea of offering a group policy because it is exorbitantly expensive,” he said. “People are just dying for some kind of an alternative.”

Concern about the cost of health insurance has topped the list of small-business worries in National Federation of Independent Business surveys since 1986. (Source: NFIB Small Business Problems and Priorities survey, 2016.)

Advice: Insurance brokers in North Carolina suggest — probably not surprisingly — that you talk with a broker if you’re looking into providing health insurance for your business. That’s because the market changes quickly, and they can guide you through possible solutions such as going on the Affordable Care Act exchanges or considering short-term medical plans. The website of the National Association of Health Underwriters offers a “find an agent” function.

6 questions for Charlotte’s most intriguing Twitter account

Many people associate Twitter with angry partisan shouting matches and internet trolls. But there’s one account in Charlotte that’s going a much different direction.

With more than 2,500 followers, the anonymous account “CLT Development” focuses on Charlotte-area development news and discussion. It drops hints about upcoming office towers and land deals before they’re announced, engages in friendly banter with many of the best-known reporters in town and provides pointed architectural critiques of Charlotte’s many new buildings. Its Instagram account is filled with building renderings and picturesque photos of uptown’s skyline.

In just the last couple months, a local well-known development company has asked the Ledger if we could put it in touch with CLT Development, and a local politician mused to the Ledger that someday, he’d like to know who runs it. So let’s get more info.

In an e-mail interview with the Ledger, the person behind “CLT Development” explained that the purpose of the account is to start discussions, link some of the best voices in development and urban planning, and create a place where people can learn from each other.

Q: What is the idea behind CLT Development?

There are a lot of great voices in the development community, and there are a few great people who report on commercial real estate. Even with these folks doing their jobs, there’s white space to be filled, content-wise. What’s missing is someone who can report on development but also share their opinions, dive deep on development consequences, or even just provide critiques on aesthetics.

Q: Who are you, and why is the account anonymous?

I’m a native-born Charlottean, and construction/architecture/development flows through my blood. I grew up wearing hard hats, walking through construction sites with my dad. I’m a creative director by trade but dabble as a marketer/writer/content creator. I’m anonymous so that I can be as objective as possible, maybe ruffle some feathers if needed. I want to be one of the definitive sources for development information in Charlotte. To me, a name isn’t important. The content is. 

Q: How are you able to have such good insights into what is going on in Charlotte with development?

It’s a mix of a lot of research, reading and networking. Making sure I’m up to date on all planning department activities, masterplans, rezonings, etc. It’s also about making friends, grabbing beers and networking. There are also a lot of people who send me information on a weekly/daily basis, and I’m usually pretty good at keeping track of it, digesting it, verifying it and spitting out content I deem interesting.

Q: How would you characterize development in Charlotte today? 

Safe and overly profit-driven. Charlotte could have used some good old-fashioned risk-taking in this cycle. You see an awful lot of perfect boxes being built. It would have been nice to see some variety in space programming, even if it’s at the expense of a slightly less massive profit margin. I’m encouraged by what I see in South End, though. Portman Holdings, Beacon Partners and Cousins Properties have hit some home runs. I’d also say we are a bit auto-centric still, but it’ll take a massive paradigm shift in how we commute to remedy this issue.

Q: Give me a few predictions of things that will happen in Charlotte in the next year.

I’m excited about the Dilworth side of Camden Road, on the other side of the light rail tracks. There’s a lot of land zoned for high density and a lot of underutilized pieces of property. I think the land behind Tupelo Honey, 100 East Park Ave., and maybe even Walgreens will trade hands. I think South End is a nationwide fascination, development-wise, and its days aren’t done. I think there are another couple economic development projects coming. Charlotte is continuing to hit its stride, and there are still projects to announce, even with recession chatter escalating. I also don’t think we are done building high-density office towers. 

Q: How much time per day do you spend on Twitter, and what advice do you have for people who want to up their Twitter game?

Too much time, I’m sure. I work a 10-hour day everyday for my full-time job, but I find time every morning, around lunchtime, and after work to go through my research routine, check up with contacts and strategize. As far as the Twitter game goes, be authentic, engage with people with big reaches, and be creative.

What ‘practice bubble’? It’s the ‘Atrium Health Dome’ now

It’s easy to laugh at the Carolina Panthers’ practice bubble. Maybe that’s because of the contrast between huge football players crashing into each other and a structure that resembles a soft, fluffy pillow.

Now, though, Panthers owner David Tepper is the one laughing … all the way to the bank.

The Panthers and Atrium Health on Friday announced an “expanded partnership that includes the Panthers’ new climate-controlled, indoor practice facility being known as the Atrium Health Dome.” Financial details between the multi-billion-dollar hospital system and the multi-billionaire-led NFL team weren’t disclosed.

Charlotte’s growing skyline: new bank towers and a new healthcare dome. (Photo courtesy of Atrium Health)

The new Atrium Health Dome, as we are being urged to call it, is also being touted as a venue for private and community events. A spokeswoman for the Atrium Health Foundation confirmed to the Ledger that the bubble, er, Dome will be the site of the 2020 Levine Children’s Gala, a charity fundraiser, in March.

To their credit, the Panthers and Atrium released an amusing 50-second video poking fun at the term “practice bubble.” Tepper looks to the ceiling and says, “This is more than just a bubble,” with cuts of cheerleaders, Sir Purr and people playing cornhole inside.

Sadly, the dome seems destined to be a temporary feature among uptown landmarks, since the Panthers are moving practice facilities to South Carolina.

In brief:

  • Charlotte’s got a lot … of PR flacks: Charlotte has led the nation in the growth of PR and marketing jobs since 2001, according to a new report from the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance. There are nearly 16,000 such jobs in the Charlotte area with an average pay of about $100,000, the report said, with a need for about 3,600 more positions in that field by 2028. (But maybe that’s just spin.)

  • New man of steel: Nucor CEO John Ferriola, 67, plans to retire Dec. 31, to be replaced by Leon Topalian, 51, the company said. Ferriola presided over several strong years for Nucor, one of the country’s largest steelmakers, which has benefited from economic expansion and steel tariffs.

  • South Charlotte high update: The Observer and WFAE separately had big stories over the weekend on the latest on CMS efforts to find a site for a high school in south Charlotte. Bottom line: nothing officially decided, some residents near Olde Providence hope it’s not built there. The Ledger reported last month that residents first learned about a possible site when they heard a bulldozer in the woods, and available land in south Charlotte is scarce.

  • New iPhone: Apple is expected to announce the iPhone 11 tomorrow. Industry watchers expect it to have a better camera. The company might also announce a new version of the Apple Watch. (TechCrunch)

  • Voting time: Election Day is tomorrow, and polls will be open 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. The expensive and never-ending 9th Congressional District race featuring Dan vs. Dan is the big-ticket item for much of south Charlotte. But there are also hotly contested city primary elections. Sample ballots available here.

Taking stock

Unless you are a day trader, checking your stocks daily is unhealthy. So how about weekly? How local stocks of note fared last week (through Friday’s close), and year to date:

Got a news tip? Think we missed something? Drop me a line at and let me know.

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The Charlotte Ledger is an e-newsletter and web site publishing timely, informative, and interesting local business news and analysis Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, except holidays and as noted. We strive for fairness and accuracy and will correct all known errors. The content reflects the independent editorial judgment of The Charlotte Ledger. Any advertising, paid marketing, or sponsored content will be clearly labeled.

The Charlotte Ledger is published by Tony Mecia, an award-winning former Charlotte Observer business reporter and editor. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and three children.