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This year, employers faced moderate increases in health insurance premiums, and they cut themselves a break. According to a new survey, they passed the increases onto their workers. And the new health care law probably isn't going to help matters much.

NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER: The good news this year, says Kaiser Family Foundation President and CEO Drew Altman, is that premiums for employer-provided health insurance stopped rising at their previous double-digit rates.

Mr. DREW ALTMAN (President and CEO, Kaiser Family Foundation): The overall increase in premiums was moderate, about 3 percent and, you know, that's an average across all firms.

ROVNER: But the bad news?

Mr. ALTMAN: Workers are paying all of that increase. And so the worker contribution to premiums went up 14 percent this year, and the employer share did not go up at all.

ROVNER: That added about $482 to the average worker's family premium. Altman says it's the first time in a decade the foundation's been doing the survey. He's seen employers literally pass all the increase to their workers. He calls it a survival tactic in a recession-battered economy. But he says that over time, shifting more and more of the cost of insurance to workers is changing the nature of health insurance itself.

Mr. ALTMAN: Insurance is just getting stingier and less comprehensive with more cost sharing and, especially, with higher deductibles.

ROVNER: Indeed, today more than a quarter of all workers have to pay at least a thousand dollars before their insurance kicks in. Nearly half of workers in businesses with fewer than 200 employees have deductibles of at least a thousand dollars. Altman says as an employer himself, he's starting to worry.

Mr. ALTMAN: While certainly some cost sharing is an appropriate part of insurance, too much cost sharing becomes an economic burden for people and a barrier for them to getting the health care that they need.

ROVNER: And he's not the only one. Penny Opalka manages benefits for Snyder's of Hanover, the snack food company. Snyder's actually didn't pass on health insurance increases to workers this year, but it probably will have to next year. And Opalka says loading more cost sharing onto employees is a big concern.

Ms. PENNY OPALKA (Manager, Benefits and Compensation, Snyder's of Hanover): If you have someone who, say, for instance, is earning $9 or $10 an hour, how much can they afford per week to pay out in health care? And that I do think is a challenge and something that many employers are going to be faced with in the future.

ROVNER: Meanwhile, however, Opalka said her company has been faced with growing health costs this year due to another possible link to the recession. They've seen a lot more employees getting a lot more care.

Ms. OPALKA: Because of the economy, people just get nervous, and they're afraid to put things off till later. And they will actually go in and get something taken care of that maybe they would not have, you know, for this year.

ROVNER: And there's more bad news, says Altman of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is that the new health law won't do much to help the situation.

Mr. ALTMAN: The politics of health reform were don't touch employer-based health insurance, at least very much, and so the law doesn't.

ROVNER: People who find themselves paying more than 9 percent of their income on employer premiums will be able to seek a better deal in the new insurance exchanges. But everyone else may just have to get used to paying more and getting less.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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