Survey: Coverage, premiums holding steady for employer health plans

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Premiums for employer-based plans rose an average of 4 percent this year, according to Kaiser’s data. Altman said the relatively moderate increase is “good news,” noting that premium increases have slowed over the past few years.

And 93 percent of companies with 50 or more employees offer insurance to their workers, despite a one-year delay in the healthcare law’s employer mandate.

The number of companies subject to the healthcare law’s new requirements is growing quickly.  Just 36 percent of all workers are covered by a plan that is “grandfathered” from ObamaCare, compared with 56 percent in 2011, according to Kaiser.

Some employers and conservative critics of the Affordable Care Act have said that businesses will be forced to quit offering health benefits as provisions of the healthcare law take effect. 

Kaiser’s data, however, indicate that such changes materialized over the three years since ObamaCare began.

Given the moderate increases in costs, “it’s not an environment where they should be dramatically cutting workers’ benefits,” Altman said.

Although cost increases are moderating, Altman said the public doesn’t feel the trend. Early results from Kaiser’s next healthcare tracking poll show that the public feels healthcare costs are rising faster than usual, Altman said.

“There’s no question that this is a year with a very moderate premium increases — very moderate — but I suppose you can’t blame the public if that’s the perception they have,” he said.

The slowdown is relatively recent: Over the past decade, premiums for employer-based insurance have risen about 80 percent — three times more than wages have risen in the same period. Even this year’s relatively modest 4 percent increase compares to a 1.8 percent rise in wages.

That helps explain why the public doesn’t recognize that healthcare cost growth is slowing, Altman said.

“I think that’s just because over time what people pay for healthcare has so significantly eclipsed their wages,” Altman said.

Employers have also begun shifting more and more healthcare costs to employees.

According to Kaiser, 78 percent of workers have an annual deductible in their healthcare policies, and 38 percent face a deductible of $1,000 or more. Both numbers have risen steadily.

Low-wage workers pay significantly more of their own healthcare costs than higher earners, Kaiser said. Firms are more likely to offer healthcare coverage if they have more high-wage workers.  

The vast majority of people with health insurance in the U.S. are covered through an employer-based plan.

Altman said it’s hard to know exactly why premiums have grown more slowly lately, but he said the biggest factor is probably the overall economic slowdown.