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Cost of U.S. Workers' Health Premiums Surged in 2011

TUESDAY, Sept. 27 (HealthDay News) -- Average annual premiums for employer-sponsored family health coverage shot up 9 percent in the past year, to more than $15,000, according to new research from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust.

On average, U.S. workers now pay more than $4,000 each year towards health coverage, and the increase has far outpaced growth in workers' wages, the 2011 employer health benefits survey found.

"This year's 9 percent increase in premiums is especially painful for workers and employers struggling through a weak recovery," said Drew Altman, Kaiser President and CEO, in a news release issued Tuesday.

Premiums increased 2.1 percent faster than workers' pay, and 3.2 percent faster than general inflation, the researchers found. Overall, family premiums have surged 113 percent since 2001 -- significantly more than the 34 percent growth in wages and 27 percent for inflation.

In the wake of the 2010 health reform law affecting employer coverage, the survey also estimated 2.3 million uninsured young adults up to the age of 26 were added to their parents' employer-sponsored family health plans.

"The law is helping millions of young adults to obtain health coverage. In the past, many of these young adults would have lost coverage when they left home or graduated college," study author Gary Claxton, co-executive director of the Kaiser Initiative on Health Reform and Private Insurance, said in the news release.

The survey also revealed 31 percent of covered workers are in high-deductible health plans, having to pay at least $1,000 in deductibles for single coverage. Twelve percent of these workers face deductibles of at least $2,000.

People working for smaller businesses (fewer than 200 employees) are more likely to have these high deductibles, the research found. Fifty percent of workers in smaller firms face deductibles of at least $1,000, including 28 percent with deductibles topping $2,000.

This trend reflects a rise in high-deductible, consumer-driven plans over the past two years that contain tax-preferred savings options such as a Health Savings Account. As more firms offered these plans, the share of covered workers enrolled in them doubled, from 8 percent in 2009 to 17 percent in 2011, the survey revealed.

Moreover, recent health reform has resulted in 56 percent of covered workers being insured under "grandfathered" plans, which are exempt from some health reform requirements, such as having an external appeals process.

Among the other findings from the Kaiser Family Foundation study:

  • Premiums for worker-only health coverage increased 8 percent in 2011 to $5,429 annually. Workers pay an average of $921 toward this coverage.
  • The share of companies offering health insurance to their workers is 60 percent this year, virtually unchanged from 2009.
  • Covered workers pay an average of $22 in co-pays for primary care and $32 in co-pays for specialty care for in-network physicians.
  • Covered workers with three- and four-tier drug plans have average co-payments of $10 for generic drugs, $29 for preferred brand-name drugs, $49 for non-preferred brand-name drugs, and $91 for specialty drugs.
  • About 26 percent of large companies (200 or more employees) offer retiree health benefits in 2011, unchanged from last year and down significantly from 32 percent in 2007.

These findings, which reflect early provisions in health reform, will "provide valuable insight for employers, providers, consumers and policymakers as they prepare for additional provisions to take effect by 2014," Maulik Joshi, senior vice president for research at the American Hospital Association, said in the news release.

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health provides more information on health insurance.

-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas

SOURCE: Kaiser Family Foundation, news release, Sept. 27, 2011

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