Given a choice, most American workers would rather have better health care coverage than a pay raise, according to a new study.[@@]

Over 75% of working Americans would prefer $6,200 in employer-provided health insurance rather than the identical amount in pay, according to the 7th annual Health Confidence Survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and Mathew Greenwald and Associates, Inc.

Employees with health coverage also are twice as likely to accept lower pay for more health benefits, rather than the reverse, according to the survey, which was underwritten by the Principal Financial Group Inc., Des Moines, Iowa.

“The fact that employees are willing to choose health coverage over money in their pocket further illustrates just how important health benefits are to American workers today,” says Carey Jury, vice president of the health division of the Principal.

A good health plan can also increase worker loyalty, the study suggests. Nearly 1 in 3 survey participants said they remain with their current employer because they aren’t sure they would be able to find an affordable health care plan with another employer.

The survey found the rising cost of health care has had a significant financial impact on many workers:

  • 48% of those surveyed said they have had to cut back on contributing to other savings.
  • 30% had difficulty paying other bills.
  • 26% said they used up all of their savings in the past year due to increased spending on healthcare.
  • 25% said they cut back on retirement savings contributions due to growing medical bills.

But the effects of the rising cost of health care may not have been all bad, judging from some other results uncovered by EBRI. Many participants said higher medical costs have led them to change their behavior for the better.

Among those experiencing increased costs over the last year, 74% said they take better care of themselves to help curb costs; 58% talk to the doctor more carefully about treatment options and costs; and 57% only go to the doctor for more serious conditions or symptoms.

“We have a health crisis, not a health care crisis,” comments Jerry Ripperger, director of consumer health for the Principal. “The only way to lower health costs is to improve health. This survey found 3 out of 4 are trying to take better care of themselves.”

The EBRI survey also appeared to show growing interest in health savings accounts. Asked how interested they would be in high deductible plans with a health savings account, 11% of those with nongovernmental coverage said they were highly interested. When informed that such a benefit would be portable, workers’ interest in HSAs doubled. And if employer contributions to this type of plan was mentioned, nearly one-quarter of respondents expressed interest, EBRI reports.