Health costs rise, but more slowly


- Family premiums rose 4 percent to $15,745 in the past year

- The employee share rose to $4,316

- Premium increases have slowed. Cumulative growth was 30 percent from 2007-2012, down from 51 percent from 2002-2007.

- About one-third of workers now have deductibles of $1,000 or more

- Workers at lower-wage firms pay an average of $1,000 more per year for family coverage.

The non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation bills itself as a non-partisan source of facts, information, and analysis on major health care issues. The foundation is not associated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Industries.

Health Research and Educational Trust is affiliated with the American Hospital Association. It focuses on “identifying, exploring, demonstrating, and evaluating key strategic health care issues,” according to its website.

American workers faced a relatively modest increase of 4 percent in the cost of family health insurance coverage this year – though it may not feel that way.

The average yearly family premium topped $15,700 with workers paying roughly $4,300 toward the cost of coverage, according to a national employer health benefits survey released Tuesday. In Georgia, the average employee contribution for a family plan hit nearly $4,250 last year — up roughly 45 percent from 2006, separate federal data shows.

“This year’s 4 percent increase qualifies as a good year,” said Drew Altman, CEO of the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, which co-authored the report on employer-provided insurance. “But it still takes a growing bite out of middle-class workers’ wages, which have been flat or falling.”

The report also showed that about one third of workers now have deductibles of $1,000 or more.

Rising health care costs and how best to rein them in has become a central point of debate in the presidential race.

When the Affordable Care Act passed two years ago, President Obama promised health insurance premiums would go down; so far, they’ve done the opposite, said U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta.

“Premiums and out-of-pocket expenses will only continue to rise under this disastrous, one-size-fits-all policy,” Gingrey said. “We can’t lower costs while forcing people to enroll in programs they may not use.”

Supporters of the law argue, however, that it has helped millions of Americans — and Georgians — gain insurance coverage, access free preventive care and save money on prescription drugs.

But experts say the health law hasn’t had a huge affect on health care costs thus far since many of its major provisions don’t kick in until 2014.

Instead, they say, the slowing growth of health care costs in recent years has more likely been driven by the recession as workers — faced with stagnant wages and insurance plans with higher deductibles — have sought less care.

The Kaiser study said the slowdown may stem from several factors - both economic and policy-related - with a specific cause hard to pinpoint.

“No one has yet been able to disentangle the causes of the slowdown persuasively,” Altman said.

Family health insurance premiums rose 51 percent from 2002 to 2007, but increased only 30 percent in the following years, according to the study. Kaiser and the nonprofit Health Research & Educational Trust surveyed more than 2,000 small and large employers for the study.

The survey also showed that workers at lower-wage firms on average pay $1,000 more out of their paychecks for family coverage, compared with those at higher-wage companies. Employees at companies that generally pay lower wages also face higher deductibles. The survey defined lower wage firms as those where at least 35 percent of workers make $24,000 or less per year.

Aging baby boomers, many of whom are caring for elderly parents, have felt the strain of soaring health care costs especially hard, said Doug Lueder, owner of AmeriCare Georgia, an Atlanta-based home care company.

Boomers who have lost their jobs and are paying outrageous rates for COBRA insurance — usually the entire cost of the coverage their old employer provided — suddenly can’t afford to pay for someone to cook, clean and provide other services for their elderly parents, who also face higher Medicare costs, Lueder said.

“They’re having to make tougher choices as to where to spend the money,” he said. “You’ve got to have food on the table.”

Supporters of the health care law say it’s already benefiting people on Medicare and families.

At least 123,000 young adults in Georgia have gained insurance coverage as a result of the law, which allows parents to keep children on their insurance up to age 26. More than 100,000 people on Medicare in Georgia received a $250 rebate check to help cover the cost of prescription drugs in 2010.

Perhaps one of the law’s biggest impacts so far has been requiring insurance companies to spend at least 80 percent of the premiums they collect on medical care, said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a DeKalb County Democrat. An estimated 244,000 Georgians were expected to receive nearly $20 million in rebates this year.

“(Even) without full implementation of the Affordable Care Act, costs have been reduced drastically,” Johnson said. “These measures will continue to control the cost of insurance.”

Regardless of the law, however, workers will likely continue to face higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs at least in the short-term, experts say.

Nationwide, more than half of employers plan to shift health care costs to workers next year in an effort to keep premiums down, according to a survey by global consulting firm Mercer.

For Ed Wilson, of Duluth, health insurance plans weighed heavily in deciding whether to take a new job earlier this year.

Wilson, an account executive at a specialty insurance firm, and his wife chose the top tier plan but still pay thousands of dollars out-of-pocket to meet their deductible. They’ve invested heavily in a flexible spending account in the past to help cover health care costs.

“We do the best with what we’ve got,” he said. “I don’t think anybody ever plans to be sick.”