Survey: Health Premiums Rise By Small Percentage

Average health care premiums rose by a mere 4 percent this year, according to a new survey. That's the smallest increment in more than a decade. But experts aren't sure whether that slowdown will last.

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This year, health insurance premiums rose by one of the smallest increments in more than a decade, and that's according to a survey released yesterday. Still, as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, it's still not clear why this happened, and if it's only temporary.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: The annual survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust found that the average price of a family health insurance policy offered by an employer in 2012 is $15,745. That's a whole lot of money, but it's only four percent more than last year, says Kaiser Family Foundation president and CEO Drew Altman.

DREW ALTMAN: Four percent is a low increase, and it is good news for someone like me who has been studying health care costs for more than 30 years, and these moderate increases in health care costs are actually pretty striking.

ROVNER: But even a small increase is hitting workers harder in their wallets. One reasons is that employers have held down premiums in recent years by loading more costs onto workers in the form of larger deductibles and co-payments for actual medical care. Another reason, says Altman, is that four percent increase is still more than twice the increase in average workers' wages.

ALTMAN: And that's why what looks like recent moderation to experts doesn't always feel that way to working people.

ROVNER: So why the recent slowdown in health spending? Health care economists don't agree on much these days, but they do agree that one major reason has been the sorry state of the economy. John Goodman heads the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank.

JOHN GOODMAN: The recession is causing people to be more conservative about their consumption of health care, so that we have fewer doctor visits and fewer things being purchased.

ROVNER: But where experts disagree is on the impact of the 2010 health law. Goodman thinks the law has had an inflationary effect, even though this year's increases are small.

GOODMAN: I think that the health reform law is causing spending on health care to be higher than otherwise would have been, and that's causing insurance premiums to be higher, and in the years ahead we're going to see dramatically higher spending.

ROVNER: But Kaiser vice president Gary Claxton says it's hard to link very much about current health care premiums to the health law.

GARY CLAXTON: We're still waiting for a lot of the important provisions to take effect for small firms.

ROVNER: One piece of the law that has taken effect did show up in the survey. Nearly three million young adults now have insurance through their parents' health plans who otherwise wouldn't have had access to private coverage. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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