Employers face higher health care costs for next year
Health care costs rose faster than inflation and wages this year — a trend that will hit home for many workers in the next several weeks as employers offer open enrollment.

Employers usually pick up much of the tab for health insurance, but many are expected to shift more of this growing burden onto workers next year. That means employees are likely to see higher premiums and deductibles. And a growing number will be required to pay more up front, as more companies are adding so-called consumer-driven plans.

For some time, workers have been feeling the pain of paying more.

Kaiser Family Foundation reported recently that the typical annual premium for family coverage rose 9 percent this year, at a time when pay went up an average of 2 percent.

The total annual premium — shared by employers and workers — amounted to $15,073 for family coverage and $5,429 for singles, Kaiser says.

Kaiser estimates that up to 2 percentage points of this year's increase can be attributed to popular new benefits required by the Affordable Care Act, the health care overhaul that won't take full effect until 2014.

That law requires many health plans to fully cover preventive care, such as immunizations and mammograms. And young adults now can stay on their parents' insurance until they turn 26. Kaiser figures that 2.3 million young adults were added to parents' plans this year thanks to the law.

As we head into a new year of benefits, there's some consolation for workers:

A recent survey by benefits consultant Mercer found that costs next year are expected to go up by an average of 5.4 percent — the smallest increase in 15 years.

Some of that is because of a dropoff in the number of people seeking care, possibly as a way to save money during the weak economy, says Melissa Jimeno, a principal in Mercer's Baltimore office.

But Jimeno adds that wellness programs offered by employers to try to get workers with chronic conditions to take better care of themselves also appear to be paying off.

Columbia-based W.R. Grace & Co. is putting the finishing touches on its benefits package for next year. Pamela Wagoner, chief human resources officer for the chemical maker, wrote in an email that the goal is to help workers stay healthy and give them more flexibility on how they spend health care dollars.

For example, Grace will offer employees and their spouses $100 each if they complete a health-risk questionnaire and undergo testing for such things as cholesterol levels.

Grace, which employs about 1,050 workers in Maryland, also is adding two consumer-driven plans to encourage workers to be more judicious users of health care. The company says workers switching to these plans could see premiums fall by as much as 35 percent — a carrot to entice them to participate.

Here are the details of what you might see in your enrollment package:

High-deductible plans These health plans, which come with an employee-controlled spending account, are about 15 percent cheaper than the usual offerings, Mercer reports. That's one reason they appeal to employers.

The steep deductibles they averaged $1,908 this year, Kaiser reports — keeps premiums lower.

The plans often are paired with a health savings account. Workers — and sometimes employers — contribute money into a tax-free account that employees can tap to pay the deductible or medical expenses. Money that's not used will accrue over time to be used for future health bills. And if workers leave their jobs, they can take the money with them.

The theory is that when employees control how money is spent in the account — and, ultimately, how much they can end up with — they will be savvier shoppers of health care.