IDAHO FALLS, Idaho -

As Idaho's lawmakers work to hammer out and approve a state-based health insurance exchange, Idaho's employers are getting ready to make some tough decisions about providing benefits.

Come Jan. 1, 2014, companies that employ 50 or more people will be required to provide health insurance for employees.  If not, they'll be subject to a fine.

So here's the question: Does the business owner pay for the benefits, or try and find a way around it to save money?

"I kind of view it as a locomotive coming down the track," said Don Sherwood, the Idaho Falls district manager for Blue Cross of Idaho.

Sherwood helped local business representatives weigh the options Wednesday morning at a Grow Idaho Falls Investor Breakfast.

"One of the attractors to bring (good employees) is the compensation to that employee, and benefits is one of those factors," Sherwood said.

That's what Kara Gallagher, the human resources manager for the Idaho National Laboratory, said her employer intends to do.

"We want to ensure that we are competitive, so that we can attract the best scientists and engineers from around the world," Gallagher said.

Gallagher said the employee benefit plan won't change, though small adjustments have been made to meet guidelines of the Affordable Care Act.  Positive changes include no cap on coverage, and dependents of INL employees can now remain on the plan until age 26.  The only downside, Gallagher said, is that employee flexible spending accounts were slashed from $5,000 to $2,500.

"The cost increases -- we haven't really seen any to date," Gallagher said.

The real impact will be felt on smaller businesses.

Grow Idaho Falls CEO Linda Martin said since a state exchange hasn't been created yet, some employers will need to wait to weigh their options.

"I think that we will rely on the professionals, primarily our CPAs and insurance professionals, to help us go through that," Martin said.

Sherwood said other employers are not as eager.

He said since the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, many employers have considered laying enough people off to exempt the company from providing benefits.  In other cases, employers told Sherwood it would be cheaper to pay the penalty.

"It's perceived the fine would be $2,000 per employee per year," Sherwood said.  "I can tell you that $2,000 per employee per year is far less than what it would cost to provide benefits for employees."

If Idaho's lawmakers don't come up with a state-based insurance exchange, the state would have to participate in a federal exchange.

Idahoans already pay some of the lowest insurance premiums in the country, so the goal would be to include some cost-effective group plans for employers in the state pool.

Provisions from the Affordable Care Act will continue to be phased in until Jan. 2015.