By Christine Dugas, USA TODAY
As health care costs continue to increase, employers are looking for ways to cut costs, such as reducing spouse and dependent coverage in 2013, says a study out today.
While the total cost of health care is predicted to rise 5.3%, to $11,507 per employee in 2013, the increase is slowing, says the new Towers Watson survey of 440 midsize and large companies. This year, in comparison, the cost is expected to increase 5.9%.
"Recently employers have been increasing employee premiums, although they can only push the envelope so far," says Paul Fronstin, director of the Health Research Program at the Employee Benefit Research Institute. If healthy workers drop out of the plan, self-insured employers might lose money, he says.
That is why most companies keep employee premium increases in line with their cost increase. For example, 13% of companies say they will increase workers' premiums by 5% in 2013, the Towers Watson study found. And 42% will only increase worker premiums from 1% to 5%.
Among other changes that employers are planning for 2013:
•The adoption of account-based health plans, which include health savings accounts and health reimbursement accounts, is continuing to grow, says Julie Stone, a senior consultant at Towers Watson
•Some companies, 38%, will reduce spouse and dependent coverage, while 29% will use spousal waivers or surcharges, the study says. As employees have to pay more to cover family members, it may be more economical for the husband to be under one plan and the wife under another, Stone says.
•Nine percent of firms are planning to offer telemedicine consultations next year. And 27% are considering it for 2014 or 2015. It is cheaper to contact a doctor by phone, e-mail or video rather than go to an office. And an employee doesn't have to leave the workplace. It's most often used for ailments such as flu and allergies. And it is not considered as a substitute to a doctor's visit.
•Most employers, 88%, are committed to offering health care benefits, Towers Watson says. They know it's needed to attract and retain the best employees, consultants say.
But the fact that even 12% say that they are not committed is also significant. "If just one Fortune 500 company says it is no longer going to offer health benefits, then that will trigger other employers to do the same thing - even though most are saying that they are committed to offering it," Fronstin says.