NU Online News Service, Nov. 22, 2004, 9:27 a.m. EST

A major benefits consulting firm says the average cost of group health coverage at large, midsize and medium-small employers rose 7.5% this year, to $6,679.[@@]

Mercer Human Resource Consulting L.L.C., New York, has published a survey report that confirms projections of a rate increase slowdown made in late 2003 by other organizations. The other organizations predicted that moves to higher co-payments, higher coinsurance rates, and programs that combine high-deductible health coverage with personal health accounts probably would bring the health coverage inflation rate down into the single digits.

The rate of increase is the lowest Mercer has recorded since 1999. A year ago, Mercer was reporting a 10.1% rate of increase in health coverage costs for 2003.

Mercer bases its rate statistics on a survey of about 3,000 U.S. employers. All of the participating employers had at least 10 employees.

Mercer is a unit of Marsh & McLennan Companies Inc., New York.