U.S. employers expect health care costs to rise 6% this year, according to Watson Wyatt Worldwide and the National Business Group on Health.

Employers are expecting the rate of increase to be about the same as in 2007 and 2008, the organizations say in a preview of results from a survey of 489 large U.S. employers.

Average participating employer health care expenditure per employee will increase to about $7,400 this year, from $7,173 in 2008.

Employers paid an average of 20% of premiums in 2008, and that percentage will likely stay the same this year, according to researchers at Watson Wyatt and the NBGH.

More employers said they intend to control rising costs by adopting personal health account plans in 2010, researchers report.

About 51% of the participating employers now offer personal health account plans, up from 47% in 2008, and another 8% of the employers expect to adopt health account plans in 2010.

Employers with at least half of their workers enrolled in a health account plan have a 2-year cost increase trend of 4.6%, compared with 6.1% for employers that have not offered health account plans, researchers report.

About 67% of the survey participants cite poor employee health habits as a challenge to managing health care costs.

Other challenges cited include underuse of preventive care services (42%), the high cost of catastrophic and end-of-life care (36%) and employers’ poor understanding of how to use their coverage (30%).

Although more employers want to adopt health account plans, 86% said they do not intend to delay or cancel planned benefits program offerings, and 87% said they are not planning any making plan design changes.

The percentage of participating employers that said they are very confident that they will be able to provide health benefits 10 years from now has fallen to 63% this year, from 73% a year ago, the researchers report.