NU Online News Service, Sept. 10, 2003, 10:52 p.m. – Some benefits firms predict increases in the cost of employer-paid health coverage will slow in 2004, but researchers say the cost of coverage increased 13.9% this year.

The amount of the premium employees pay for family coverage has increased almost 50% over the past three years, to $2,412.

The percentage of employers with fewer than 200 employees that say they are somewhat or very likely to drop health coverage altogether has increased to 16%, from 12% in 2002, and interest in dropping coverage at larger employers has increased to 8%, from 5%.

Meanwhile, even though employers and employees are both paying much more for premiums, employees are facing bigger bills when they seek medical care.

Deductibles, copayments and other out-of-pocket expenses are all going up, and often in ways that are difficult to predict, according to the researchers and the groups that sponsored the survey.

“It’s becoming harder for workers to know how much they will have to pay for their health care,” says Gary Claxton, a director of the Health Care Marketplace program at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Menlo Park, Calif.

The Kaiser foundation sponsored the survey together with the Health Research and Educational Trust.

Researchers at a polling firm surveyed 2,808 U.S. employers of all sizes for the Kaiser foundation and HRET between January and May.

The researchers found that the typical family health insurance policy now costs $9,068 per year, with employers paying an average of 73% of the premiums.

When researchers asked employers how well various strategies might control health coverage costs, the strategy that drew the most responses of “very effective” was efforts to increase use of disease management programs. Twenty-two percent of the employers believe disease management programs can be very effective at holding down costs.

Use of “consumer-driven” plans that combine high-deductible coverage with health reimbursement arrangements drew the most responses of “very effective” or “somewhat effective.” Sixty-eight percent of the employers said consumer-driven plans could be very or somewhat effective.