Less angst over health care, energy at small businesses; owners more optimistic, survey says

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NEW YORK — Small business owners are less angst-ridden about health care than you might think.

Health care costs are second among owners' major concerns in a survey released Thursday by Bank of America. Seventy-two percent cited health care costs as a big concern, down from 74 percent in a similar survey in the spring. The No. 1 concern was the effectiveness of government leaders, cited by 74 percent versus 75 percent in the spring.

Owners are less worried about health care now that they've seen what insurance under the health care law looks like and costs. Uncertainty about the law had intensified owners' concerns. And surveys taken before the new insurance began selling last year showed owners were extremely anxious about whether the law would continue to drive premiums higher.

"There used to be regular double-digit, sometimes triple-digit premium increases and now we're seeing increases of often under 5 percent," says John Arensmeyer, CEO of the advocacy group Small Business Majority.

The law has increased competition among health insurers, and that has helped lower premiums and in turn, owners' anxiety, Arensmeyer says.

The Bank of America survey, taken last month, also found oil, gas and other commodities, are much less of a concern, cited by 63 percent of owners, down from 70 percent in the spring. Energy prices have receded as a major worry as the national average price of gasoline has fallen below $3 a gallon from nearly $3.70 in April.

The survey, which questioned 1,000 owners, found they're modestly upbeat about national and local economies. Forty-five percent expect the national economy to grow in the next 12 months, up from 40 percent in the spring. Half predict growth in their local economies, down slightly from 51 percent.

They're slightly less upbeat about their companies. Sixty-two percent expect their revenue to grow over the next year, down from 68 percent in the spring. Owners of the largest small businesses, those with $750,000 to $5 million in revenue, were the most optimistic; 70 percent predicted revenue growth.

Surveys of small business owners have had differing conclusions in recent months, making it hard to draw conclusions about small companies in general. An American Express survey of 1,130 owners in September showed 63 percent were upbeat about their companies and the economy, up from 54 percent in the spring.

The expected drop in revenue in the Bank of America survey coincided with a modest dip in hiring and expansion plans. Forty-one percent said they plan to take on new employees in the next 12 months, down from 43 percent in the spring. Twenty-four percent said they don't plan to expand in the next year, up from 21 percent.

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