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Activists marched to the offices of Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand in New York City on September 5, 2017. | Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Is the rapidly rising cost of employer-sponsored health insurance sustainable?
Half of all Americans get their health insurance through work. Trouble is, doing so is becoming less and less affordable — especially for already low-wage workers.
In 2019, the Kaiser Family Foundation Employer Health Benefits Survey — an annual account of roughly 2,000 small and large businesses’ employer-sponsored insurance — found the average annual premium to cover a family through work was a whopping $20,576, and $7,188 for an individual. Employers cover most of that, but families still contributed an average of $6,015 in premiums, and single Americans covered about $1,242 of the annual cost.
The kicker? Over the past 10 years, the cost of the portion of employer-sponsored health insurance premiums that falls on American families has increased by 71 percent. Overall, premiums have gone up 54 percent since 2009. That’s faster than the rate of inflation and faster than the average wage growth.
Nearly half of all Americans get their health insurance through work, a system that covers roughly 153 million people. And for lower-wage workers it’s a system that is increasingly unaffordable.
Workers at companies with a significant number of low-wage employees (which the Kaiser Family survey quantifies as a company in which at least 35 percent of employees are making an annual salary of $25,000 or less) have lower premiums than those who work at companies with fewer low-wage workers, probably because their plans cover less. But at the same time, workers at firms with a significant number of low-wage employees are faced with high-deductible plans, and also pay a larger share of the premium cost than workers at companies with fewer lower-wage employees.
According to the survey, workers at lower-wage companies pay an average of $7,000 a year family plan — $1,000 more than employees at companies with higher salaried workers.
“When workers making $25,000 a year have to shell out $7,000 a year just for their share of family premiums,” Drew Altman, the president of Kaiser Family Foundation, said in a statement, that’s where cost becomes prohibitive. Such employees are putting almost 30 percent of their salaries toward premiums.
The takeaway is clear. Health care is getting more and more expensive, and families and employers are having to bear more of the cost, which research has shown not only has an effect on how much workers are actually getting paid, but how many workers are hired.
As Sarah Kliff reported for Vox, there are a lot of studies spanning decades that show how a rapid rise in health insurance premiums has unfavorable outcomes for workers. This is in large part because employers think of compensation in totality; they lump together an employee’s salary, as well as their benefits as one total cost. So if covering a worker’s health insurance gets more and more expensive, employers see less room to give the worker a raise.
For example, a 2006 study from Katherine Baicker and Amitabh Chandra, both with the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that an overall 10 percent increase in health insurance premiums reduced wages by 2.3 percent and actually reduced the probability of becoming employed by 1.2 percent.
Results such as these, and the high premiums low-wage workers must pay, led the Kaiser survey’s authors to explicitly question the tenability of employer-sponsored insurance: “the national debate about expanding Medicare or creating public program options provides an opportunity to step back and evaluate how well employer-based coverage is doing in achieving national goals relating to costs and affordability,” the report reads.
The United States is unique in its reliance on employers to provide health insurance. And, as Democratic candidates for president continue to go in circles debating health care, employer-sponsored insurance is often the biggest sticking point.
Several candidates, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, who popularized a plan for Medicare-for-all, a single government-run program, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who supports Sanders’s plan, have called for getting rid of the employer-based system, and private insurance, all together.
But their critics always bring up the same talking point: that the people who like their health insurance plans through work, should be able to keep it. The Kaiser survey raises questions as to how affordable those plans really are, and, as Democrats debate ideas like Medicare-for-all, how sustainable the current trajectory is.
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