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In Employer Health Insurance Costs, Stability Is the New Normal

This was published as a Wall Street Journal Think Tank column on September 12, 2014.

 

Employers have complained for years about their rising health-care costs. But over the past decade, as the chart above shows, premium increases for employer health insurance have moderated sharply and stabilized. Premiums for family policies in the group market grew 72% between 1999 and 2004; 34% between 2004 and 2009; and 26% between 2009 and 2014. Even as premium growth moderated, health insurance costs still outpaced inflation and wage growth. But this year premiums grew 3%, about the same rate as wages and inflation. Despite fears that premiums would rise in the group market because of the Affordable Care Act, they have remained stable.

Policy experts do not fully understand why health-care costs have moderated or when and how rapidly they might begin to again rise more quickly. And coverage is still very expensive: The average family policy costs $16,834 a year, with employers paying, on average, 71% of the expense and employees 29%.

Corporate benefits managers will continue to do what they can to tamp down annual premium increases, and companies will continue to raise deductibles and other forms of cost sharing to help constrain premium increases. But as long as these more modest increases in their health insurance premiums continue, corporate CEOs will see their health costs more like a chronic illness to be managed than an acute problem or crisis, and they will no doubt focus their energies on other problems. The longtime debate about whether employment-based health insurance is sustainable and should be replaced with a different system may also cool so long as premium increases remain this moderate. And while observers will continue to closely watch the ACA’s impact on this market as new provisions kick in, so far the law has not had an obvious impact on health benefits in the group market, in which 150 million Americans get coverage.

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.