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Health care costs are crippling small businesses

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I’ve got news for the folks doing the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans’ survey:  Smaller businesses, especially those defined as true small businesses with two to 50 full-time employees, are strapped beyond belief when it comes to paying ever-higher premiums for health care.

The survey’s results are NOT indicative of what is happening in the small group market (much like the Kaiser Family Foundation’s (KFF) annual survey on total premium and the portions shared by employees, which always makes me laugh. The employees at my businesses would kill to have the low percentage of total premium passed on to them that is reported in the KFF survey).

Across the board, the 100+ businesses I represent, all of them two to 50 full-time employees, have received increases between 13 percent and 75 percent this year.  The average has been around 20 to 24 percent.  That’s on top of more than 15 percent average increases last year, the year before, and the year before.

Some of those increases have been mitigated by moving to High
Deductible Health Plans (HDHP), but we didn’t get premium savings by
doing so, we only leveled premiums for a year or so. Now, the
underlying increases are causing the HDHPs to rise just as fast (and
maybe even faster; more on that in a minute), so employers are moving
toward ever bigger deductibles.

Just five years ago, average deductibles for my employers who had
deductibles (many were still on straight copay HMOs) were in the
$500-$1000 per covered member range.

Now, I have only a handful of employers still on HMOs, and they have
huge co-pays, like $1,500 inpatient hospital co-pays or large
deductibles just like the more traditional insurance plans. Most
deductibles range from $2,000 per covered member to as much as $10,000
for a cumulative family deductible.  And many of those are HDHPs, with
no benefit for covered sickness or injury or prescription benefits,
until the deductible is met. Even with these plans, premiums are simply
too high for many low-wage and middle-income folks to pay.

Most of my small businesses have been frightened to death by the
health care industry’s warnings against  governmental intervention. The
most common remark I receive is “I don’t want government involved in my
health care!”  However, the second most common remark I am receiving
now is “I don’t know how much longer I can pay for this. Frankly, the
government can’t do any worse.”

I have an unremarkable quote in a Nov. 17 WSJ article
– “Now the insurers are catching up.” – on the coverage problems facing
small business. What I meant to convey to Ms. Fuhrmans, the reporter,
was that the premise that Consumer Directed Health Care would give
consumers more skin in the game and slow the rise in health care costs
was, and remains, a myth.

I represent the two businesses profiled in the article. Their
experiences are not anomalies in the small group market. Rather, they
are indicative of the dramatic health insurance changes that have
affected small businesses. Just five years ago, one of the businesses
had a very traditional PPO product, with low copays, low out-of-pocket
expenses for major medical claims, and low-cost prescription drugs.
The other employer also had relatively affordable costs, both for
themselves and their employees. More importantly, both businesses felt
that, while expensive, the costs to them and their employees was not
egregious.

Fast forward to today. Both businesses feel that they’re being hosed
on their health care costs. They don’t care what is behind the cost
increases. It also makes no difference which carriers are involved, as
all struggle with rising costs and ultimately pass those costs on to
employers and their employees. The employers only know that the current
rate of increase (for premiums, for payroll deductions for the
employees’ portions, and for out-of-pocket expenses at time of claim)
is simply unsustainable.

Think about it. Only about 36 percent of small businesses in Florida
still offer coverage – this is far less than the national average of 52
percent, and that number continues to plummet.

So an increasing percentage of small businesses now feel that governmental intervention of ANY kind is preferable to the present untenable situation. In the small group marketplace, the pinch has been here for a long
time, and has turned into a hard squeeze. Soon, it will squeeze the
life out of the markets — at which point the small group market will
implode.

At this point, the current system only works for affluent employers,
who can still pay the exorbitant premiums but who don’t pass the bulk
of that cost along to their employees. It also still works for
businesses with high-income employees who can absorb the cost. That
typically means larger businesses and institutional purchasers like
local, state and federal government organizations. It works for
purchasers with enough capital and revenue to offset the bulk of the
costs, whose employees haven’t yet felt the “pinch” of high health care
costs.

An interesting and often overlooked side note is that in almost all
surveys of employee satisfaction, employees of larger employers and
those employers that pick up the bulk of the premium are typically more
satisfied with the current system than employees in small businesses,
which are often not included in such surveys.

Finally, the most popular plans I now sell to small businesses are
plans with a flat $5,000 individual/$10,000 family deductible (no
carrier responsibility for anything other than pure preventive until
the deductibles have been met). A similar $1,500/$3,000 HDHP is also
popular. I very rarely sell more traditional PPO co-pay plans because
the businesses I represent (mostly light industry and service) cannot
afford them.

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Michael SlyderMariyaDeron S.Peter Recent comment authors
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Michael Slyder
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Mariya
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Deron S.
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John – Are you saying that exposing everyone to the costs of care through HDHPs has no effect on containing costs? I’d like to hear more on that because it doesn’t seem logical, although there isn’t much logic in anything these days. I run a medical group with about 50 employees. Our premiums are going up 20% in 2009. However, I also know that our utilization is quite high. I don’t think we can expect to contain the premium costs without containing the underlying utilization. I’d like to see a report on what’s happening to loss ratios while premiums increase.… Read more »

Peter
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Peter

Thanks for the frank insider exposure John. “Frankly, the government can’t do any worse.” Oh yes it can. That would be to keep paying the health industry (insurance included) the present pricing and utilization system AND using tax dollars and expensive mandates to bleed citizens to keep it that way. We’re already getting “hosed” proping up a failed financial system, with bonuses intact. The lie about HDHP plans is that people are able to pay the high deductibles – NOT. Like the financial system this is a system based on lies brought to you by a healthcare lobbyist financially rewarding… Read more »