Health insurance premiums rising faster than wages and inflation

Premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance rose an average of 6.1 percent in 2007, less than the 7.7 percent increase reported last year but still higher than the increase in workers' wages (3.7 percent) or the overall inflation rate (2.6 percent), according to the 2007 Employer Health Benefits Survey recently released by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust. Key findings from the survey were also published in the journal, Health Affairs.

The 6.1 percent average increase this year was the slowest rate of premium growth since 1999, when premiums rose 5.3 percent. Since 2001, premiums for family coverage have increased 78 percent, while wages have gone up 19 percent and inflation has gone up 17 percent.

The average premium for family coverage in 2007 is $12,106, and workers on average now pay $3,281 out of their paychecks to cover their share of the cost of a family policy.

"We're seeing some moderation in health-cost increases, but premiums for family coverage now top $12,000 annually," Kaiser President and CEO Drew E. Altman, Ph.D. said. "Every year health insurance becomes less affordable for families and businesses. Over the past six years, the amount families pay out of pocket for their share of premiums has increased by about $1,500."

"The number of options for low wage earners is limited and the greatest burden of all health care costs falls to this segment of the population," said Health Research and Educational Trust President Mary A. Pittman, Dr. P.H. "Although the economy seems to be strong, between 2005 and 2006 the total number of uninsured still rose by 5 percent, including a 9 percent increase in the number of uninsured children."

The annual Kaiser/HRET survey provides a detailed picture of how employer coverage is changing over time in terms of availability, costs, and coverage for the 158 million people nationally who rely on employer-sponsored health insurance. It was conducted between January and May of 2007 and included 3,078 randomly selected, non-federal public and private firms with three or more employees (1,997 of which responded to the full survey and 1,081 of which responded to a single question about offering coverage).

While premiums continue to rise faster than workers' wages, this year's gap of 2.4 percentage points is much smaller than the 10.9 percentage point gap recorded four years ago, when premiums rose 13.9 percent and wages grew just 3 percent.

However, "despite the comparatively low rate of increase in premiums and a strong labor market, the percentage of the workforce obtaining coverage from employer-sponsored plans remained unchanged since 2006," reports the Health Affairs article by Kaiser's Gary Claxton and coauthors. The 60 percent of firms offering health benefits to at least some of their workers is statistically unchanged from last year's offer rate (61 percent). The offer rate remains significantly lower than it was in 2000, when 69 percent of firms offered health benefits. Nearly all (99 percent) large businesses with at least 200 workers offer health benefits to their workers this year, but fewer than half (45 percent) of the smallest firms with three to nine workers do so.

Modest Enrollment in Employer-Sponsored Consumer-Driven Plans

In spite of the extensive attention paid to consumer-driven health plans, the survey finds that these relatively new types of arrangements have made only a small inroad into the employer market. Such plans cover about 5 percent of all covered workers, which is not statistically different from the 4 percent share recorded in 2006.

Overall, an estimated 3.8 million workers are enrolled in consumer-driven plans, about equally divided between high-deductible plans that qualify for a Health Saving Account (HSA) and plans with a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA). These plans feature a high-deductible plan and a tax-preferred savings option, from which employees can pay for their out-of-pocket medical expenses. Such plans are often described as consumer-driven because people pay directly for a greater share of their health care and may have an incentive to minimize its cost. They also may offer tools to help consumers choose providers based on cost and quality.

This year, 10 percent of firms offered a consumer-driven plan to their workers, which is up from (but not statistically different than) the 7 percent of firms reporting this for 2006. Firms with at least 1,000 workers are more likely to offer such plans, with nearly one in five (18 percent) offering one. Looking toward 2008, few firms that don't already offer such plans report that they are very likely to add a HRA plan (3 percent) or a HSA-qualified plan (2 percent).

Premiums for these high-deductible plans are generally lower than for other types of plans, though in addition to the premiums, employers may also contribute money to the savings accounts. The survey finds that firms on average pay a total of $7,815 toward the cost of family coverage for a HSA-qualified plan (including $714 for the account) and $10,179 toward the cost of family coverage for a high-deductible plan with a HRA (including $1,800 for the account). Compared to the $8,879 average firm contributions for other types of plans, employer contributions are lower for HSA-qualified plans and higher for plans with HRAs.

Businesses made no contribution at all to the savings account for roughly half of all workers enrolled in an HSA for family coverage, leaving workers to pay the generally higher out-of-pocket costs associated with their high-deductible plan.

"Consumer-driven plans have established a foothold in the employer market, but they haven't grown as much as one might think, given all the attention that they receive," said Kaiser Vice President Gary Claxton, co-author of the study and director of the Foundation's marketplace research.

"Despite the economic expansion that added 2 million new jobs from April 2006 to April 2007, the employer-based system can do no better than tread-water," said co-author Jon Gabel, senior fellow at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. "It makes one ask, 'What will happen during the next economic downturn?'"

Worker Contributions and Cost-Sharing

Covered workers on average pay 16 percent of the overall premiums for single coverage and 28 percent for family coverage – shares that have remained relatively stable over the past years. However, workers in small firms (three to 199 workers) pay significantly more on average toward the cost of family coverage ($4,236 annually) compared to larger firms ($2,831 annually). For single coverage, the opposite is true, with workers at small firms annually contributing less on average than workers at large firms ($561 vs. $759).

Among firms that offer health benefits, 10 percent vary how much workers contribute based on the workers' earnings, about the same share as in 2005. About 6 percent of firms vary premium contributions based on employees' participation in wellness programs, up from 3 percent in 2005. In addition, 10 percent of firms offer financial incentives for workers to enroll in a spouse's health plan, which can reduce the firm's health care costs.

Other findings include:

  • Cost-sharing. In 2007, for firms with deductibles, the average general annual deductible for single coverage is $461 for PPOs, $401 for HMOs, $621 for POS plans and $1,729 for consumer-driven plans. For plans with three- or four-tiered drug cost-sharing, the average co-payments were $11 for generic drugs, $25 for preferred drugs, and $43 for non-preferred drugs. Co-payments for fourth-tier drugs, which may include costly biological agents and lifestyle drugs, averaged $71.

  • Domestic partner benefits. Nearly half (47 percent) of all firms that offer health benefits make them available to unmarried opposite-sex domestic partners, and nearly 37 percent offer such benefits to same-sex partners. Interestingly, large firms (with at least 200 workers) were less likely than small firms to offer domestic partner benefits to unmarried opposite-sex partners at 28 percent.

  • Market share of health plans. Preferred Provider Organizations continue to dominate the employer market, enrolling 57 percent of covered workers. Health Maintenance Organizations cover another 21 percent of workers, with 13 percent in Point-of-Service plans, 5 percent in consumer-driven plans, and 3 percent in conventional indemnity plans.

  • Other pre-tax benefits. Overall, 61 percent of firms that offer health benefits allow workers to use pre-tax dollars to pay for their share of their health premium costs. Fewer firms (22 percent) offer a Flexible Spending Account, in which workers can set aside pre-tax money to cover out-of-pocket health care spending. In both cases, large firms (200 or more workers) are far more likely to offer these benefits than smaller firms.

  • Future outlook. Many employers indicate that they expect to make significant changes to their health plans and benefits in 2008. Overall, 21 percent of firms say they are "very likely" to raise workers' premium contribution next year. Some firms also say they are "very likely" to increase office visit cost-sharing (13 percent), increase deductibles (12 percent) and increase prescription drug cost-sharing (11 percent). Very few firms say they are "very likely" to restrict eligibility for coverage or drop health coverage altogether.

    The full Employer Health Benefits 2007 Annual Survey, along with an audio interview with co-author Gary Claxton, is available online. The Health Affairs article based on the survey is also available online via the free link at the Kaiser Web site above.

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