WASHINGTON — Annual premiums for job-based family health insurance went up just 4 percent this year, but that’s no comfort with the price tag approaching $16,000 and rising more than twice as fast as wages.
The annual survey released Tuesday by two major research groups served as a glaring reminder that the nation’s problem of unaffordable medical care is anything but solved.
Premiums for a family plan are averaging $15,745, with employees paying more than $4,300 of that. And lower wage workers are paying more for skimpier coverage than their counterparts at upscale firms.
Overall, “it’s historically a very moderate increase in premiums,” said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which conducted the survey with the Health Research & Educational Trust.
He quickly added: “But even a moderate increase feels really big to workers when their wages are flat or falling.” General inflation rose only 2.3 percent, by comparison.
Following a 9 percent hike in premiums last year, the 2012 increase quickly became fodder for the political debate. Republicans said President Barack Obama’s promises to control health care costs ring hollow in light of the findings.
But the most significant cost-control measures in Obama’s law have yet to take effect, along with the president’s big push to cover the uninsured. The cost controls include a new tax on the most expensive insurance plans and a powerful board to keep Medicare spending manageable.
Trying to head off critics, the administration issued a report estimating that consumers have saved $2 billion as a result of the health care law. That’s due to a combination of insurance rebates for employers and individual policy holders, as well as closer state oversight of proposed rate increases, facilitated by Obama’s law.
The Kaiser survey showed premiums for job-based family coverage have risen by nearly $2,400 since 2009 when Obama took office, with a corresponding increase of nearly $800 for employee-only coverage.
The Kaiser/HRET survey found that employee-only coverage went up 3 percent this year, with annual premiums averaging $5,615. Companies usually pick up a larger share of the cost for employee-only coverage, so workers typically paid about $950 of that.
The availability of employer-based coverage, the mainstay for working people and their families, remained stable this year, with 61 percent of all companies offering health benefits. However, only half of companies with 3 to 9 workers offered health insurance, while virtually all large firms with 1,000 or more employees did so.
Companies continued shifting costs to their workers, at a somewhat slower pace. A trend toward steering employees into plans with high annual deductibles eased a bit. The deductible is the amount you must pay each year before insurance kicks in. The survey found that 34 percent of workers are in plans with annual deductibles of at least $1,000 for single coverage, up from 31 percent in 2011.
The survey found that workers in lower-wage companies pay $4,977 toward the cost of family coverage, as compared to an average of $4,316 for all workers. And the policy they get for their money is less generous, typically worth about $1,000 less.
“They are really paying more and getting less,” said Altman.
Most experts believe the sluggish economy provides the likeliest explanation for the moderate rise in premiums. Last year’s spike was blamed on a mistaken bet by insurers that the economy would recover faster.
The survey includes more than 2,000 small and large employers. Asked what kind of increase they’re expecting for 2013, employers said their best estimate at this point is 7 percent — sure to prompt more pain.