NU Online News Service, Oct. 11, 2004, 4:37 p.m. EDT

U.S. employers should get ready for another year of painful decisions about major medical costs.[@@]

Researchers at Hewitt Associates L.L.C., Lincolnshire, Ill., a human resources consulting firm, are basing that warning on figures from a database of more than 2,000 health plans in 139 communities.

Hewitt researchers estimate the average cost of the most popular type of commercial coverage, preferred provider organization coverage, will increase 11%, to $7,573 per covered employee, and the average cost of the second most popular option, the health maintenance organization plan, will increase 11.5%, to $7,269.

The overall average will increase 11%, and the average employee contribution will go up about 15%, to $1,481, Hewitt predicts.