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HSA participation is on the rise, especially among younger workers
The average deductible for a preferred provider organization (PPO) health plan in 2017 increased more than 8 percent for individual coverage and 9 percent for family coverage compared with 2016 plans—putting PPO plans only a couple hundred dollars below the IRS deductible thresholds for a plan to be considered a high-deductible health plan (HDHP).
"Traditional" health coverage through a PPO plan still carries lower deductibles and higher premiums than a typical HDHP. But the distinction is becoming blurrier, according to a new research report,
The State of Employee Benefits, from Benefitfocus, a Charleston, S.C.-based provider of cloud-based benefits software. The report draws on benefit election data from more than 500 large U.S. companies that use the firm's benefit-management platform.
In comparing HDHP and PPO plans, the two most popular plan types, the report showed average 2017 deductibles as follows.
For PPO Plans:
Average Deductible by Plan Type – Family Coverage
(click on graphic to view in separate window)
PPO deductibles are rising at a faster rate than HDHP deductibles—nearly 10 percent since last year—and are nearing the IRS threshold to be considered HDHPs," said Shandon Fowler, senior director of product strategy at Benefitfocus.
minimum deductible levels set by the IRS for 2017 are $1,300 for individuals and $2,600 for family coverage. Plans that satisfy these thresholds may be linked to a tax-advantaged health savings account (HSA).
"It's quickly becoming a world where every plan should have an HSA option," said Fowler.
Still, PPO premiums remain much higher than those of HDHPs, and HDHP out-of-pocket costs remain higher than those of PPO plans, he noted. "But the gaps have narrowed, leaving employees with arguably more financial responsibility than ever. It's up to employers to ensure employees are making the best possible plan selection for their circumstances."
To help employees select the most effective plan fit, "employers should offer personalized choices and voluntary benefits to offset any financial burden from the rising health care costs across the board," he advised. "Above all, employers need tools to educate employees about the impact of their benefits selections on both health and financial wellness."
Employees' Costs Are Up, Regardless of Plan
While deductibles rose faster for PPO plans than for HDHPs this year, the growth of employees' share of plan premiums was up more sharply for HDHPs compared with PPO plans (even though HDHPs have had, overall, lower premium rate increases than PPO plans).
For instance, employee-paid premiums for HDHPs rose by more than 12 percent for family coverage, while the corresponding premiums for PPO plans increased modestly in comparison.
Average 2017 Premium by Plan Type and Coverage Level
Employers are effectively paying less for HDHPs than last year, having transferred approximately an additional 1.5 percent share of the premiums to employees.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Health Care Costs]
Employee Age Influences Plan Choice
When an HDHP was offered as an option along with at least one traditional health plan, Millennials—especially those under age 26—chose to enroll in the HDHP at a higher rate than other workforce generations, the report revealed. As workers aged, and presumably incurred more health care expenses, they became less likely to choose the HDHP option.
Source: Benefitfocus. Millennials (born 1980-98), Generation X (1961-79), Baby Boomers (1949-60) and Traditionalists (1948 and earlier).
HSA Participation Rises with Age
However, among employees who opted for an HDHP, HSA participation rates (with employees making salary-deferred contributions) rose with employees' ages, with the exception of the oldest workers:
While younger Millennials participate less in available HSAs than most of their older colleagues, the under-26 demographic had the largest increase in participation compared with 2016—up 4.6 percent.
The report also highlighted HSA contribution levels in 2017.
Average HSA Contribution by Coverage Level(Change from 2016 in parentheses)
Employees' average contributions to an HSA also increased with age—not surprisingly, as older workers typically earn more and have more income to direct toward health and retirement accounts.
For 2017, the average annual contribution level by age group that employees with individual coverage set for themselves, among those on the Benefitfocus platform, are shown below.
Average Employee HSA Contribution Rates for Individual Coverage
Four Themes for 2017
Summing up, among the key trends that the report highlighted for the 2017 plan year were:
High-Deductible Plans and Funded HSAs: Best of Both Words?
Because of high-deductible health plans' lower premiums, some employers who have shifted their employees from traditional plans into HDHPs have reduced their health care spending even after paying for some, or even most, of their employees' deductibles by making contributions to employees' health savings accounts.
"We realized we could save a lot of money if we bought a high-deductible plan and simply paid everyone's deductible," Rodney Alvarez, vice president of talent management with online ad firm Celtra
told BenefitsPro.com. "It would still be cheaper, and it allows us to provide the same benefits you would have in a Cadillac plan—but without playing the super-high premiums of those plans."
SHRM Online Articles:
As Premium Growth Slows, Health Plan Deductibles Rise,
SHRM Online Benefits, September 2016
Employers Project Health Premium Hike of 6% in 2017,
SHRM Online Benefits, August 2016
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