High health-care costs may result in fewer doctor's visits

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As health care costs go nowhere but up, workers can expect employers to shift more of the burden on them — again.

Costs are expected to increase in two ways: in the amount deducted from paychecks for monthly premiums (an 8.7 percent increase is projected by Hewitt Associates) and in out-of-pocket expenses as deductibles rise. Many employees are getting this bad news now, during open enrollment season for next year's benefits elections.

Higher costs are changing how consumers use the health care system. Some are dropping their employers' health-care plans altogether because they're too expensive, the Dallas Morning News reported.

"Increasing employee contributions, deductibles, co-pays and premiums are causing many workers to opt out of their employers' health plans," said David Guilmette, a consultant with Towers Perrin, a human resources company based in Stamford, Conn.

The practice of passing costs on to the employees results in workers foregoing preventive care. Some are delaying going to their doctor, and about one-fourth aren't filling their prescriptions, according to the 10th annual Health Confidence Survey, as reported in the Kansas City Star.

"It's critical companies design their health care programs in a way that encourages employees to use them wisely. Otherwise, they are essentially trading preventive care now for 'rescue care' later and ultimately higher health care costs,” Jim Winkler, practice leader of Hewitt's Health Management Consulting business, told the Green Bay Press Gazette.

Some doctors are offering patients the option of zero-interest loans to pay for their bigger-ticket medical needs. According to the New York Times, more than 10,000 doctors and dentists offer financing for laser eye surgery, ceramic tooth implants and other procedures not covered by insurance. This type of medical financing has become one of the fastest-growing parts of consumer credit, the newspaper reported.

Nearly one-third of the 1,000 adults surveyed by the nonprofit Employee Benefit Research Institute said they were contributing less to their retirement accounts due to high health-care costs. More than half said they were saving less overall.

The survey also noted, however, that 81 percent of respondents are trying to take better care of themselves.

Good intentions may not translate into better health, though. Michelle Willis, associate director of human resources with a Portland, Ore. engineering firm, said David Evans and Associates in January offered employees a high-deductible plan with a health-savings account, with about one-fifth taking advantage of this so-called consumer-driven plan.

She says the greatest pitfall is assuming that a consumer-driven health plan is a cure-all. Her company fully covers preventive care. Not all do, and some consumers may avoid doctor visits to save money.

"It is really just one tool," she said, to be with other efforts, including programs to educate workers, help them lose weight, quit smoking, exercise more and take control of chronic illnesses.

"Just putting the plan in place doesn't mean people will be more thoughtful about their health," she said.

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