U.S. health insurance premiums climb faster in 2011

By Alina Selyukh

(Reuters) - The cost of health insurance continues to climb for U.S. companies and workers, with annual family premiums this year growing at a pace triple that of 2010 and outpacing wage increases, according to a survey.

As the United States continues to grapple with a stubbornly weak economy, family premiums in employer-sponsored health plans jumped 9 percent this year and single premiums rose 8 percent, compared with 2010's 3 percent and 5 percent, the Kaiser Family Foundation's annual study, published Tuesday, found.

"We're probably on a more modest side ... but even with a 5 percent increase in a premium (that our workers saw) this year, they didn't get a 5 percent raise," said Jeff Franck, a compensation and benefits manager at Altru Health System, which employs about 3,700 people in North Dakota and Minnesota and participated in the survey.

U.S. health insurance, unlike other industrialized countries, is largely provided by employers. Although the latest Census found more Americans losing company-sponsored insurance, almost 170 million Americans were on employer-based plans in 2010.

Kaiser and the Health Research & Educational Trust surveyed 2,088 randomly selected public and private employers large and small earlier this year.

The survey found that, on average, employees are contributing 28 percent, or about $4,129, a year toward employer-sponsored family plans. That is 131 percent more than a decade ago.

Including employers' contributions, the overall premium has increased 113 percent since 2001 to $15,073 a year.

More workers, especially in smaller firms, continue to join high-deductible health plans. Thirty-one percent of covered employees this year have to pay at least $1,000 in single plans before coverage kicks in, up from 27 percent last year.

The survey also highlighted some early results of President Barack Obama's healthcare reform.

Under one of the few provisions already in effect, people under the age of 26 are now allowed to remain covered by their parents' insurance plans to curb historically high uninsured rates in that age group. The Kaiser survey estimated that U.S. companies have added 2.3 million young adults to their parents' family health policies.

Franck at Altru Health pegged much of the premium costs' increase at his company to adding children of his employees onto their plans.

That part of the healthcare reform was not meant to cut costs, and many cost-cutting provisions have yet to kick in, said Kaiser President and Chief Executive Drew Altman.

"There are a variety of factors that could have been responsible for (premium increases), but the major reason is not the healthcare reform," he said.

Although the survey did not study contributing factors, Altman echoed other analysts in suggesting that insurance companies had planned their premiums in expectation of more people going to the doctor or buying medications as the economy improved -- which did not happen.

Insurers have generally attributed the need to raise premiums to growing underlying medical care costs as coverage also continues to expand. Both have fed into a heated debate over the future of healthcare spending, which for several decades has grown faster per person than the nation's economic output, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Slowing down those soaring costs is one of the main issues on the agenda of a bipartisan congressional deficit-reduction panel that is due to make recommendations by November 23 on how to slash the U.S. budget deficit by at least $1.2 trillion.

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh in Washington; editing by John Wallace)