More U.S. firms using high-deductible insurance plans

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U.S. employers, struggling to contain rising healthcare costs, are expanding their use of high-deductible insurance plans, which help reduce monthly insurance premiums by shifting a greater share of medical expenses to workers, a new survey shows.

In 2011, 32% of companies with 500 or more employees offered high-deductible plans. That was up from 23% in 2010, according to the survey of 2,844 private and public employers by the benefits consulting firm Mercer.

In all, 13% of insured employees in the survey were enrolled in such a plan this year, up from just 3% five years ago.

Under high-deductible plans, employees pay for more of their initial medical expenses with money deposited by them and their employers into health savings accounts. Money in the accounts can be rolled over from year to year, allowing workers to build up large sums for future medical expenses.


“One feature of the [high-deductible] plans that employers like is the flexibility in funding employees’ spending accounts,” said Laura Baker, a principal in Mercer’s Los Angeles office. “A growing number of employers are making their account contributions contingent on the employees’ willingness to take steps to improve their own health.”

Companies say the approach is a benefit to them and their workers because it helps keep a lid on monthly insurance expenses. The Mercer survey showed that the average cost of employee coverage under high-deductible plans was nearly 20% lower than traditional insurance plans -- $7,787 compared to $9,385.

The shift to the high-deductible plans may be one reason behind slower growth of health insurance costs reported by employers.

The average per-employee cost of health benefits grew by 6.9% last year. The average costs have grown by 6.1% this year, and are expected to rise by 5.7% in 2012, the survey found.


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-- Duke Helfand