Health insurance is the top priority of owners of small- to medium-sized businesses, but 58% of owners do not currently offer this benefit, says a new study.

Principal Financial Group Inc., Des Moines, Iowa, has based the study on results from an online survey conducted by an outside firm. The firm interviewed representatives from 423 U.S. businesses with 2 to 500 employees from Dec. 10, 2008, to Jan. 8, 2009

In addition to the clash between health insurance priorities and actual benefits offerings, the survey identifies several discrepancies between priorities and benefits packages.

For example:

- Business protection. This ranked as the owners’ second priority, but the researchers found that 61% of the business owners do not have plans in place to help protect their businesses in case of death, disability or termination of key employees, says Principal.

- Retirement plans. This ranked third as a priority yet only 19% offer a 401(k) plan to employees, says Principal.

In addition, 66% of owners said they do not have an exit plan to transition the business in the event of death, disability or retirement. Instead, they are focusing on growing their businesses (70%), and achieving business stability and remaining active in the business after retirement (both 47%), Principal says.

“Our research clearly demonstrates owners are torn between their desires and their current reality,” says Steve Parrish, national advanced solutions consultant for Principal.