Filed Under:Your Practice, Regulatory

Health Plan Cost Increases Starting to Slow Down

Increases for all types of health plans projected to increase by less than 10 percent for the first time in a decade

Small comfort: health care costs are still going up, just not as fast as they used to. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Small comfort: health care costs are still going up, just not as fast as they used to. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Costs for all types of medical plans are expected to increase by 9.9 percent for 2012, according to the 24th National Health Care Trend Survey, conducted by Buck Consultants, A Xerox Company (NYSE: XRX). This is the first time since 2001 that Buck’s survey has projected cost increases less than 10 percent for any type of plan. The firm has been conducting its survey since 1999.

In a national survey of 129 insurers and administrators, Buck measured the projected average annual increase in employer-provided health care benefit costs. Insurers and administrators providing medical trends for the survey cover a total of approximately 109 million people.

In Buck’s 23rd National Health Care Trend Survey, preferred provider organization costs had been estimated to increase by 11.1 percent, point-of-service costs by 11.0 percent, health maintenance organization costs by 11.0 percent and high-deductible health plan costs by 11.1 percent.

“The reduced trend factors reported in our survey reflect that health insurers, who may have previously added margins to account for health care reform benefit changes mandated for 2011, have now removed those margins for 2012 projections,” said Daniel Levin, FSA, a Buck principal and consulting actuary who directed the survey. “The reduction also reflects lower expected costs as a result of the economic slowdown. Employees are trying to reduce their out-of-pocket expenses and are postponing elective medical services.”

“Also, the trends are not varying by plan type as they have in previous surveys,” added Levin. “This may indicate that insurers do not currently see network type as a significant reason for modifying trend factors.”

See also: State-Based Exchange Status Map

Health insurers reported an average prescription drug trend of 9.6 percent. This is down 1.1 percent from the prior survey. It is also more than twice the 4.6 percent reported by pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) – third party administrators of prescription drug programs who generally do not take any underwriting risk.

For plans that supplement Medicare, health insurers reported a projected increase of 5.8 percent excluding prescription drug coverage, up from 5.3 percent in the prior survey. This lower trend of Medicare Supplement plans reflects the impact of federal controls on Medicare fees and the lower increases expected in Medicare deductibles and copays.

“Despite the lower trend factors found in our survey, health care costs continue to outpace both general inflation and wage increases - creating real business challenges for organizations,” said Levin. “We’ve seen increased interest from plan sponsors for strategies to optimize alternative delivery systems such as exchange models and Accountable Care Organizations.”

The survey also reported trend factors for dental and vision plans.

Health insurers use trend factors to calculate premium rates, and large self-funded employers use these trend factors to budget their future health care costs. In general, trend factors provide for price increases that may result from such variables as inflation, utilization of services, technology, changes in the mix of services, and mandated benefits.

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