Employer-sponsored health insurance saw moderate growth this year, but according to experts, these increases may be temporary, and may slow up in 2012.

In a report released Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust, annual premiums for family coverage climbed 9 percent and surpassed $15,000 for the first time, with premiums for single coverage rising by 8 percent compared to 2010.

Last year, family and single coverage increased 3 and 5 percent, respectively. The study revealed that premiums have more than doubled for both family and single coverage since 2001, while worker wages have risen 34 percent.

Kaiser CEO Drew Altman said a number of factors may have played a role in this year's percentage jump. He noted that health-care costs continue to rise, and insurer profits and the health care overhaul also have some impact.

The overhaul, which Congress passed last year, aims to eventually cover millions of uninsured people. In an Associated Press report, Kaiser said initial provisions of the law contributed between 1 and 2 percentage points to this year's premium hikes, which is about what many insurance analysts and benefits experts expected.

"We don't know if this is a one-time jump and premiums will go back down again next year, or whether we're entering a period of higher increases. We really don't know, and we won't know until next year," Altman said.

For the past several months, insurers have maintained that, according to the number of claims they are processing, health care use is growing more slowly this year. Experts note that economic ills often cause sick people to avoid seeking medical care. Regardless of the cause, Altman and other benefits experts say that trend could lead to lower premium increases next year, since insurers base their rates partly on how often people use care.

Although few and far between, insurers are even refunding billed premiums to employers that promote wellness among its health insurance members. Blue Care Network of Michigan today issued its lowest average statewide rate increases for Michigan employers since 2008, and announced that it is notifying about 5,200 Michigan employers in the small group segment (50 employees and fewer) that they will receive a 2.5 percent refund of billed premiums because their health care costs came in lower than expected in 2011. The overall statewide average rate increase for the BCN small group market for first quarter 2012 is 6.7 percent.

The economic ills that continue to plague most employers, however, have been the topic of concern for many, and in the past, employers picked up 70 percent or more of the split between companies and workers for an individual’s health insurance premiums. Experts have said that when that split creates a heavier percentage for companies, their reaction is to reduce or remove their workers’ wage increases, and in so doing, creaty further economic pain.

The Kaiser survey also revealed that employers are steadily increasing their participation in high-deductible plans, which come with lower premiums but make consumers pay more out-of-pocket for care, which some claim creates yet another economic burden. This insurance is often paired with health savings accounts that let people save pretax for medical expenses.

Conducted earlier this year, Kaiser’s annual study includes results from more than 2,000 companies nationwide. It also indicates that many more families than previously believed have benefited from a popular provision in the overhaul that allows young adults to stay on a parent's health plan until they turn 26.

In its survey, Kaiser asked employers how many people were added to their insurance plans because of this provision and estimated that 2.3 million young adults enrolled. However, the federal government last week issued a report stating that the number of uninsured young adults had dropped by nearly 1 million since the health care overhaul legislation took effect, and Gallup corroborated that finding.

The Kaiser survey may have counted young adults who were covered by a more expensive policy and switched to their parent's plan to save money, noted the Associated Press report.

Mercer, a benefits research and consultancy, offers yet another perspective. According to results of an employer survey, health insurance costs in 2012 will rise by the smallest amount since 1997.

-- This article first appeared on Insurance Networking News.



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