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Employer-Sponsored Health Insurance – An Impending Decline?

Americans partake in a variety of traditions. We throw tailgate parties, both before and after football games. During Halloween, our tradition involves children going door-to-door begging for candy, using the words, “Trick or treat!” Before Thanksgiving, our president and many state governors will pardon hand-selected turkeys from becoming the next meal. After Thanksgiving, Americans find the energy to start their annual Christmas gift list and go shopping on Black Friday…and/or wait until Cyber Monday.

During this time of year, millions of Americans will also perform the ritual of selecting a health plan for the new year – based on how much the new insurance plan will now cost them. In addition to the increased insurance premiums, Americans are forced to wrestle with climbing deductibles, copayments and out-of-pocket maximums. In some cases, working families are spending more of their income on insurance coverage that may not protect them compared to insurance plans from yesteryear.

Employer-sponsored health insurance is the largest-single source of health coverage in the U.S. – covering more than 150 million American workers and their dependents. By comparison, Medicaid, the second-largest source of coverage, insures about 70 million Americans, or less than half of job-based coverage. Medicare, health coverage for our seniors, covers 50 million Americans. Finally, the other 17 million American who have health coverage are enrolled in the Affordable Care Act marketplaces and individual markets offered in each state.

Underinsured

As mentioned, adults with job-based health coverage are seeing higher deductible and out-of-pocket costs compared to prior years. In fact, relative to their income, a recent Commonwealth Fund report has found that working Americans are effectively “underinsured” – they spent more than 10 percent of their income, excluding premiums, on healthcare; spent more than five percent if they were low income; or they had a medical deductible that exceeded five percent of their income. According to the report, this is more than double what it was in 2003, and up sharply from just three years ago (2014).

The major factor for the rise in the underinsured is that employer plans (both small and large employers) are increasingly fighting rising healthcare costs by super-sizing their deductibles to keep the cost of premiums relatively reasonable. Commonwealth estimates that the number of ‘underinsured’ American adults (ages 19 to 64) is 41 million, or 28 percent of U.S. adults. This number is double the rate in 2003 and is up by 10 million since 2014.

In the U.S., health spending increased by 4.3 percent in 2016, outpacing overall spending for goods and services, which increased by 2.8 percent that same year. Additionally, healthcare costs continue to grow faster than American workers’ wages. Over time, this cost pressure recedes the workers’ paychecks, which negatively impacts other purchases workers need or desire to make. In Iowa, as an example, the average deductibles offered by employers has increased drastically, up 185 percent between 2004 and 2016. Using a linear regression equation, the average single and family deductibles could climb to $2,000 and $4,500 respectively, by the year 2020.

Despite being large purchasers of healthcare services for employees and their dependents, employer-sponsored plans run the long-term risk of being unable to control rising healthcare costs – which can exacerbate the rising discontent workers have of paying more but getting less in return. Unfortunately, employers seldom work together to increase their leverage with health providers – primarily due to employers lacking the staff and expertise to combat the complexities of healthcare markets. First and foremost, employers are in the business of focusing on their own core products and services and the associated challenges found within the markets they operate. By fiat, insurance companies continue to play the role of the purchaser on behalf of most employers and their employees.

Employee Discontent?

What will the future hold if more workers become dissatisfied about their receding take-home wages? Dr. David Blumenthal, President of the Commonwealth Fund, recently wrote: “With that discontent will likely come increased calls for dramatic reforms in our health insurance system, reforms that will better protect the millions of Americans who have long depended on protections they receive in the workplace. Some of these discontented Americans may become more receptive to government interventions in private health insurance markets.”

Assuming this discontentment is real, and it appears to be, employers will need to find new approaches to apply additional leverage when making future health coverage purchasing decisions. Being a reluctant purchaser may only prolong the inevitable. For employers, there’s no better time than the present to engage in activities that will provide value for their workforce. Otherwise, external cost pressures may eventually jeopardize health coverage at the workplace.

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Comments

  1. Anne Kinzel says:

    While it would be great to see employers as more invested purchasers, there is no reason to think this will happen based on the behavior of US employer health insurers since the 1950s.

    Our health care system (?) has many problems of which financing is but one. Without taking on the enormously difficult job of comprehensive reform I fear that the working Americans are in dire danger.

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