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Big Firms to Cut Worker Health Options Next Year, 50% More Higher-Cost 'Consumer-Directed'

NEW YORK (TheStreet) — Workers may see some shifts in the structure and servicing of their health care plans as companies try to keep a lid on rising costs.

According to the corporate-backed National Business Group on Health — the board of directors is filled with executives from such companies as Coca-Cola, General Mills and IBM — costs for health care are set to rise by 6.5% next year, a figure that is a notch below 2014's average health care cost for large employers (at 7%).

The NBGH says companies will seek to curb costs by shifting their health care insurance programs. Consumer-directed health plans as an only offering to workers will grow by 50%. (Such plans are designed to get consumers to spend less on health care by exposing them "to the financial implications of their treatment decisions," according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Consumers use health savings accounts, flexible health spending accounts and health reimbursement accounts to pay for health care expenses directly, usually with high deductibles.)

Companies will also branch out in other areas, such as raising cost-sharing provisions and emphasizing wellness programs to workers.

"Despite the many distractions that the Affordable Care Act has created, large employers haven't lost sight of the fact that rising health care costs remain a significant issue that needs to be constantly addressed," says Brian Marcotte, chief executive of the National Business Group on Health. "Our survey shows that many employers are, in fact, taking necessary steps to rein in costs. This includes partnering with workers to engage in health care decisions and educating them to be better health care consumers, as well as sharing more costs with workers and narrowing their benefit options."

The NBGH breaks down potential shifts in company health care programs as follows:

  • 73% of survey respondents (made up of senior executives at large companies) are expanding programs intended to make employees savvier or more careful health care consumers.
  • 57% are adding or expanding consumer-directed health care plans.
  • 53% are adding or expanding wellness programs.
  • 33% of large firms now have in-house pharmacies.
  • 73% of companies say they will pay for surgical procedures to treat "severe obesity."

Only 3% of employers say that next year they will ship their workers into the private health care exchanges that sprang up across the nation with the Affordable Care Act, although 35% say they will consider doing so in 2016. But 7% say they will move pensioned retirees onto exchanges next year.

Only 10% of senior executives believe the health care exchanges will actually cut health care costs. That's the real issue, Marcotte says. "The proliferation of private exchanges is presenting employers with an option but one that employers need to ask questions of and study carefully. For example, employers will want to determine whether a private exchange can manage costs and care more efficiently than what they are currently doing," he says.

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