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Family health care coverage at work tops $22,000 a year

By Tami Luhby, CNN

Getting family health insurance on the job now costs workers and their employers more than $22,000 a year, on average. And companies have not been able to do much to make coverage more affordable, even though the coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the importance of health benefits.

Employees foot about $6,000 of the tab, while companies pick up the rest, according to the 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation Employer Health Benefits Survey. The report, released Wednesday, found that the average annual premium rose 4% this year to $22,221.

The average annual premium for a single staffer in 2021 hit $7,739, also up 4%. Workers pay about $1,300, and employers cover the remaining tab.

About 155 million Americans rely on employer-sponsored coverage — and they are paying a lot more for that benefit than they were a decade ago. The average family premium has increased 47%, more than wages or inflation, which rose 31% and 19%, respectively, Kaiser found.

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Meanwhile, the average deductible is roughly $1,669 among workers subject to an annual deductible, which must be met before insurance kicks in. That’s about the same as last year, but up 68% over the past 10 years.

Employers realize their plans aren’t very affordable, especially for lower-paid workers, said Gary Claxton, senior vice president at Kaiser. But they also don’t believe they have a way of offering good benefits at a substantially lower price.

“They do know these plans are expensive and hard for their employees to use,” Claxton said. “Given the cost of health care in this country, it’s pretty difficult to fashion good benefits at a lower cost for employees, particularly those at a lower and moderate wage.”

Beefing up mental health benefits

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted employers to augment their mental health coverage.

Firms told Kaiser that they’ve seen an increase in employees seeking mental health and substance abuse services since the outbreak began. Companies with at least 1,000 workers saw the biggest spike: a 38% jump.

This trend has led nearly 40% of companies to make changes, including expanding ways to get assistance, such as through telemedicine; developing new resources, including employee assistance programs; or adding more in-network providers.

Access to mental health care is a top priority for 2022, according to more than three-quarters of large companies surveyed by the Business Group on Health. Some 91% said they are concerned about long-term mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, resulting from the pandemic.

Next year will mark the first time that a majority of employers will have an anti-stigma campaign, the group’s survey found. Efforts include promoting more open discussion about mental health and the challenges employees are facing.

Benefits will cost more for 2022

Many workers are currently selecting polices for 2022 or have recently done so during their companies’ open enrollment periods.

Employers project that their health benefit costs will rise more than 5% for next year, according to a recent survey by Willis Towers Watson, an advisory firm. Employee contributions, however, will tick up less than 2%.

Some 86% of companies said a key priority over the next two years is to achieve affordable costs for their workers, especially those at the bottom of the wage scale. More are tying premiums to pay so that lower-income employees have smaller monthly tabs, said Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader at Willis Towers Watson.

Nearly a third of companies are planning or considering offering a narrower network of providers to hold down costs.

Employers have an incentive to provide attractive health insurance policies. Good benefits give them a competitive edge in hiring, especially during a tight labor market like the current one, Levin-Scherz said.

“Employers are reluctant to pass more cost sharing onto employees because it’s been a bad time, and they know that, and they are looking to be sure they can recruit the people they need,” he said.

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