Fewer than half of California small business owners carry health insurance for their employees, and of those who don't, 86 percent say it's because they can't afford to.

That's according to a new survey of about 700 small business owners the Small Business Majority queried about health care reform and the challenges of offering benefits.

"Small business owners are in an untenable position when it comes to healthcare," said John Arensmeyer, chief executive of the small business advocacy group.

"Costs are astronomical and rising every year, yet being uninsured can be just as burdensome financially if illness strikes.

"Small businesses are desperate for reform. The cost of doing nothing is just too high."

Sixty-one percent of survey respondents said healthcare reform is needed to get the economy back on track.

More than half of employers who provide health benefits described access to affordable healthcare as "poor."

The findings were worse in rural areas, where 71 percent of respondents reported "fair" or "poor" access. Among Latino business owners, 44 percent said they lacked insurance even for themselves.

The political affiliation of survey respondents was 36 percent Republican, 30 percent Democrat and 22 percent independent.

Locally, business leaders were not surprised by the survey findings, and widely agreed that health care costs are soaring at an unreasonable rate.

Carney's Business Technology Center offers an array of products and services to business clients, including digital imaging and computer networks.

This year, for the first time, the Bakersfield company switched from covering all of its employees' premiums to covering most of them.

"We've always tried to provide market standard, competitive benefits," said President Rick Kreiser. "It's just been increasingly difficult to do over the past decade."

Although there's nearly universal agreement that healthcare costs are too high, opinions vary on what's causing it, or what to do about it.

Bob Hawkes, interim director of the Kern County Community College District's Business Assistance Center, isn't wild about Congress' latest stab at health care reform.

"It's being sold like a vacuum cleaner," he said. "Nobody has seen it. Nobody has read it. The proponents talk about only the positive effects it's supposed to have but none of the negative stuff."

Kreiser would like to see costs brought down through medical malpractice tort reform.

"Tests are continually ordered whether they're needed or not in order to be defensible when you're thrown under the bus with a lawsuit," he said.

Wilma Davis, owner of Rucker's Mortuary, supports health care reform.

"I see it as a necessity. We are in a time of crisis. We need it to be available to everyone, regardless of whether they can afford to pay. Right now we have too many people not going to doctors, relying on prayer. That's not good enough."