Employers See Record Low Health Benefit Rate Increase in 2015

However, employees are paying a greater share of health care costs than ever.

A recent analysis by Aon shows the average health care rate increase for mid-size and large companies was 3.2% after plan design changes and vendor negotiations in 2015, marking the lowest rate increase since Aon began tracking the data in 1996.

Aon projects average premium increases will jump to 4.1% in 2016. “The sluggish growth in the economy has deterred many individuals from using medical services, and there’s also been modest price inflation,” says Mike Morrow, senior vice president of Aon Health. “Both factors have been primary drivers for the low rates of premium increases over the past few years. As prescription drug costs continue to grow at a double-digit pace and the economy picks up speed, it’s likely these premium rates will start to climb.”

Despite the low rate of increase for employers, the average amount that employees need to contribute toward their health care has increased more than 134% over the past decade. According to Aon’s analysis, employees contributed $2,490 toward the premium and another $2,208 in out-of-pocket costs, such as copayments, coinsurance and deductibles in 2015. In contrast, the amount of employees’ premium and out-of-pocket costs combined in 2005 was just $2,001.

The percent of total health care costs covered by employers has decreased about 1% per year since 2012. Recent Aon research shows 38% of employers have increased participants’ deductibles and/or copays, and another 46% may do so in the near future.

NEXT: Employer strategies to manage costs

Low rate increases are prompting most employers to take a traditional ‘managed trend’ approach to mitigating health costs in the short term, though some non-traditional approaches are emerging, Aon says.

High-deductible health plans (HDHPs) are the second most popular plan choice offered by companies, surpassing health maintenance organizations (HMOs). Sixteen percent of companies offer an HDHP as the only health plan option today, and another 41% are considering doing so in the next three-to-five years.

Eighteen percent of companies have reduced subsidies for covered dependents, while 17% added a surcharge for adult dependents with access to other health coverage. Forty-three percent of companies are considering using unitized pricing—where employees pay per person and not individual versus family.

Employers are adopting pay-for-performance strategies, including:

  • Steering participants (through plan design or lower cost) to high quality hospitals or physicians for specific procedures or conditions (22%);
  • Offering value-based insurance design approaches (28%); and
  • Adopting reference-based pricing—where employers set a pricing cap on benefits for certain medical services for which wide cost variation exists with no discernible differentiation in quality (6%). Another 53% plan to do so in the next three-to-five years.

An increasing number of employers are adjusting pharmacy design components to encourage the use of generic drugs, the analysis found. This includes using coinsurance rather than copays for brand drugs and by introducing mandatory generic and step therapy programs.

Aon Hewitt’s data is derived from the Aon Hewitt Health Value Initiative database, which captures health care cost and benefit data for more than 600 large U.S. employers representing 11.7 million participants, more than 1,200 health plans and nearly $59 billion in 2015 health care spending.