Health insurance premiums rose more slowly in 2007 than at any other time since 1999, but the 6.1 percent increase still outstripped the rises in workers' wages (3.7 percent) and inflation (2.6 percent), according to a study released this week. There's no relief in sight for workers, who paid almost $3,300 on average for family coverage this year. Forty-five percent of employers polled say they're likely to increase employee premiums next year, with a significant number reporting they plan to increase employee deductibles, copayments, and drug contributions as well.
The annual survey of employer-sponsored plans, conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust, has charted the upward trend in healthcare costs for years. "There's no tipping point at which health insurance becomes scientifically unaffordable," Kaiser President Drew Altman said at a press conference announcing the survey results. "But we have reached a point where it's become more unaffordable for more employers and workers."
This year's survey found that the average family policy cost $12,106, a 78 percent increase since 2001. (The typical single policy cost $4,479 in 2007.) In the past six years, the amount that families pay out of pocket in premiums has increased by about $1,500. One of the consequences of higher health insurance costs, Altman noted, has been the rise in the number of uninsured, which reached 47 million in 2006, a 5 percent increase over the previous year.
Although premium costs are widely used to gauge health plan affordability, other expenses can also take big bites out of workers' wallets. In 2007, the average family-plan deductible ranged from $759 in health maintenance organization plans to $3,596 in high-deductible health plans with a savings account option. Copayments for office visits with doctors in the health plan's network ranged from $18 to $30 on average, depending on the type of plan and doctor.
These other costs are likely to rise next year, too, according to the survey. Forty-four percent of employers said they're likely to increase how much employees pay for prescription drugs. An additional 37 percent said they planned to increase deductibles, and 42 percent said they plan to increase copayments for office visits. The good news, such as it is: Only 3 percent of companies said they were very or somewhat likely to drop coverage altogether.
About 158 million people receive health coverage through their employer. The 2007 Kaiser/HRET study surveyed more than 3,000 randomly selected companies with more than three workers.
The Bush administration has touted health savings accounts, which it says could help bring healthcare costs under control. But employers don't seem to have bought that argument. This year, just 10 percent of companies offered high-deductible health plans with a savings option, which covered about 5 percent of workers. Twenty-four percent of companies said they're at least somewhat likely to offer this type of plan next year. "The [moderate rise] in premiums hasn't pushed employers to make changes as quickly as they might have otherwise," said study coauthor Gary Claxton, a vice president at Kaiser. "But insurers are still trying to sell these. It's really their only new thing. Over the next few years we'll see if it picks up."