While everyone was focused on the price of eggs, healthcare went around behind our backs and did it again. Health insurance premiums are yet again on the rise. Experts are projecting a median increase of 7% in 2024 over this year’s premiums, which are up 6% from last year, which were up 5.5% from the year before… You get the idea. It’s actually been a steady rise of 5-7% for the last 7 years.
In some ways, the predictability in growth is a welcome change to the double digit surges we saw in the early 2000s. Also, healthcare premium inflation typically outpaces economic inflation, and that hasn’t been the case for the last two years. You might be tempted to take a premature sigh of relief.
However, medical inflation tends to lag a year or two behind the rest of the economy. Right now, we’re facing unusually high economic inflation, which reached a 40-year high in June 2022. Plus, many contracts between insurers and providers are only now coming up for renegotiation. Historically speaking, we have yet to see the full impact of inflation hit our medical insurance prices.
Even considering the atypical price fluctuations of the pandemic years, the staggering rate at which health care costs are growing overall is crushing employers and employees alike.
This is especially true if you’re one of the many organizations facing a spike of 10-30%. This puts employers in a frustrating dilemma: how are they supposed to maintain employee engagement and satisfaction while requiring them to pay more for less coverage?
The underlying reason behind the climbing rates boils down to one simple fact: health insurance costs more because healthcare costs more. Before employees come to you complaining about their insurance costs, it’s best to be prepared with facts-based explanations of your plan to battle the insurmountable costs of providing employee benefits. Before you can formulate that plan, you’ll need to understand the complexities behind rising healthcare costs.
13 Reasons Why Health Care Costs Are Going Up
1. Contract Re-negotiation During High Inflation
We teased this reason in the opener, but we’ll explore it more in depth now because experts predict the delayed effects of inflation will have a profound effect on healthcare costs in 2024 and for many more years to come.
Insurance companies negotiate with healthcare systems to set prices for the coming year(s). That means even though medical supplies, pharmaceuticals, healthcare worker wages and other costs have continued to increase, insurance companies are still paying the previously agreed upon, pre-inflation prices. Many of those contracts will expire soon. New negotiations will account for the higher prices of pretty much everything. Plus, there are talks of negotiating shorter contracts more frequently.
2. Misunderstanding / Misuse of Benefits
Even the simplest of health insurance plans have a multitude of factors you need to understand. You’ve got HMOs, PPOs, deductibles, premiums, co-pays, out-of-pocket maximums, and in- and out-of-network providers, specialists, primary care providers, co-insurance… Frankly, trying to keep the acronyms and terminology straight is enough to make one’s head spin.
Do you know the correct meanings for all four terms: “health plan premium,” “health plan deductible,” “out-of-pocket maximum” and “co-insurance?” In one study by United Healthcare, only 9% of respondents did. This lack of understanding can lead employees to make costly health care choices, like unnecessary emergency room visits, that end up leading to premium increases the following year.
3. Expensive Specialty Drugs
New drug development costs a lot: from inventing the formula to extensive testing to get it approved and then marketing it to consumers. Manufacturers have a limited time to recoup as much of these costs (and the costs of all their failed formulas before they found a successful one) and make a profit before the patent expires and cheaper, generic options become available.
Prescription drugs have never been cheap – but new methods for manufacturing medications are making them even more costly than before. For example, specialty drugs are often "biologics" procured from living cells, and many are injected or infused intravenously, making them extremely expensive. Even though these pricey medications are prescribed to only 1.5%-2% of plan enrollees, they now account for 50% of most employers' prescription drug spending.
There is some hope on the horizon. Many pharmaceutical companies have turned their focus to producing “biosimilars” to these pricey biologics. These produce the same effect but are cheaper to produce. This lowers the cost to consumers and provides healthy competition in the marketplace.
Plus, the Federal government has been doing a lot lately to help prevent any one person from being financially devastated by the cost of lifesaving medication. The Affordable Care Act caps out of pocket maximums. The Inflation Reduction Act also has provisions to lower prescription drug costs for those using Medicare. Unfortunately, the end result of lowering individuals’ costs is that the burden must be shared among all policy holders through higher premiums.
4. New Illnesses
If we’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s how much a new disease can turn the world as we know it completely upside down. On May 11, 2023, the U.S. declared the global public health emergency from Covid-19 to be officially over. The disease, however, is not completely gone and neither are the financial ramifications.
The harsh lesson is that new illnesses require staggering amounts of money in order to extensively research and test treatments and vaccines. That can be very expensive. Many facilities end up raising prices to help cover these new costs and to prepare for the uncertainty that comes with a new disease.
5. Medical Advances
Medical advancements continue to revolutionize the field of healthcare, with brilliant individuals discovering new treatments, procedures and drugs all the time. A few of these developments make health care more affordable.
However, most researchers agree that as a whole, technological advances lead to increased costs for health care. For example, breakthroughs in treatments for conditions that were once considered un-treatable (diabetes, end-stage renal disease, AIDS, etc.) vastly improve the lifespan and quality of life for sufferers of those diseases. Of course, long-term care for chronic conditions come with similarly long-term expenses.
Clinical progress has also expanded the scope of medicine by showing that conditions such as mental illness and substance abuse can be treated.
6. Shortage of Health Care Workers
The healthcare industry is being hit with a talent shortage as much as any other field. To be clear, there’s historically always been a healthcare worker shortage, but it’s gotten markedly worse since the pandemic. Some blame increasing emotional and physical overwork, which proves that even healthcare professionals struggle with preventing employee burnout.
Experts are predicting this trend to only get worse in the coming decade, with shortages of up to 124,000 physicians by 2033. In fact, between the huge number of baby boomers retiring and the number of people simply walking away from healthcare careers, the healthcare system would have to hire 200,000 new nurses per year just to keep up with demand.
The industry faces unique challenges when it comes to a worker shortage. Almost every position in the industry – doctors, nurses, technicians – requires a specific education and training. It takes 2 to 4 years of school to become a nurse and up to a decade or more before one can practice as a physician. This significantly narrows the field of potential candidates to fill jobs. Not only that, these specialized students need specialized teachers. Right now, there aren’t enough of either in the pipeline to fill the demand.
7. Aging Population Requires More Health Care
Baby boomers’ retirement from medical careers affects more than just staffing. Not only will these highly knowledgeable workers cease to treat patients, many of them will require more medical care themselves.
By the year 2030, 1 in 6 U.S. citizens will be older than 60. These older adults are particularly susceptible to chronic illness and other health problems. Statistically they will remain the most frequent users of healthcare services. With the number of geriatric patients expected to double over the next 30 years, demand for health care will increase… and so will prices.
8. Unhealthy Lifestyle Choices
Nearly 70% of health care spending goes to treat conditions like hypertension, lung disease and obesity, which are heavily correlated to lifestyle choices. Although a healthy diet and regular exercise can’t guarantee optimum health, these habits keep many health conditions (and their associated costs) at bay.
In recent years, chronic illnesses (such as heart disease and diabetes) have become more prevalent as 60% of all Americans have at least one of them and 40% have more than one. As a result, the sickest 5% of the population accounts for 50% of the nation’s health care costs while the healthiest 50% only use 3%. Many employers are incorporating employee wellness programs to empower employees to take their health into their own hands with the help of the resources you provide.
9. Physician Employment vs. Private Practice
In 2019, the U.S. healthcare system crossed a threshold. More doctors now practice medicine as employees of hospitals, health systems and medical groups than as independent practitioners. These organizations tend to have higher costs and/or charge more than independent doctors. Likewise, procedures done in a hospital setting rather than in the doctor’s office incur a facility charge on top of the physician’s bill.
According to the Medicare Payments Advisory Committee, the total payment for the most common office visit when performed in a hospital outpatient setting is $124.40. That’s nearly double the $69.97 charged for the same visit in a physician’s office. In addition, employed physicians are under an implicit expectation to admit their patients to the hospital that employs them, even if there’s a better or lower cost facility available.
10. Provider Mega-Mergers
Health care systems across the country have been merging at record rates over the last decade. There were 245 such deals in the first half of 2023 alone. Many of these mergers have been multi-billion dollar transactions, and experts expect this trend to accelerate in 2024.
In theory, the intent of these mergers is to make more resources and funding available for research and high-cost procedures, leading to a higher quality of care. Unfortunately for Americans, mergers have been shown to decrease the patient experience without improving mortality rates. At the same time, when providers achieve monopolies, consumers in that market inevitably see prices go up. Research shows that health care consolidation leads to a reduction in operating costs by 15%-30% but an increase in the average price of hospital services by 6%-18% (and some studies have found prices exploded 20%-50% in certain areas).
Currently, the 10 largest health systems own a quarter of the healthcare market, giving them unprecedented bargaining power with insurers. These healthcare mergers are affecting prices to such a degree that President Biden issued an executive order to encourage more competition in the American economy.
11. Administrative Costs
Usually when we pay our health care bills, we think of the services provided by doctors, nurses and technicians. What we don’t stop to consider is that administration costs account for 25% of U.S. health care costs, thanks in large part to complex billing processes associated with America's healthcare system.
In all, American insurers pay 3 TIMES the amount of money per person on administrative costs than the next highest country, and 5 times the average of other developed nations.
For every U.S. doctor, there are 10 administrative employees on the payroll. Not only that, new administrative employees are being hired at a staggering rate. Since 1970, healthcare managers have increased by 3,800% compared to a 200% increase in doctors nationwide. That’s not cheap.
12. Upgrading Technology
The healthcare system is still recovering financially from the Covid-19 years which sent many facilities scrambling to acquire PPE (personal protection equipment), competing for too few breathing aids, and sending away patients when supply chain issues made it impossible to get essential equipment. Now as the dust settles, many are examining their aging technology and deciding: replace or upgrade?
One study shows that even though advanced technology and newer procedures don’t necessarily lead to better care, Americans believe they do. More and more patients (and, as a result, doctors) are demanding an upgrade to the newest, most expensive technology available. The initial price for the latest and greatest is huge, but facilities recoup the costs by passing it along to patients.
A technological upgrade that many organizations feel pressure to upgrade is cybersecurity, and with good reason. The average cost of a healthcare data breach is $10 million, but the actual cost in lost trust is higher still. That’s why experts predict that globally, the cumulative price tag for cybersecurity will reach $125 billion by 2025 (since 2020). Guess who is footing that bill?
13. Mistakes and Waste
While still not perfect, I think we can all forgive higher costs when they’re buying us better health care outcomes. Unfortunately, nearly 25% of all healthcare spending is considered wasteful. That’s billions of dollars a year that otherwise could have gone towards hiring more nurses, buying more lifesaving equipment, or better yet, remained in the pockets of hard-working Americans. Instead, it’s spent on administrative waste, dealing with medical fraud, unnecessary tests & procedures, repeating tests because of poor record keeping, medical malpractice, inconsistent billing, misuse of medical equipment… the list goes on and on.
It’s not just the healthcare providers making the mistakes. Americans looking abroad for discount cosmetic surgery through medical tourism often return to American providers to repair damage caused by botched surgeries or infections. These revisionary surgeries often cost more than paying for safe procedures in the first place. Also, experts are proving that worker’s compensation pays for less than 25% of the costs associated with job-related injuries, meaning this is one more instance where society has to share the monetary burden.
How To Strengthen Your Benefits Package
According to the Medical Journal of America, decreasing medical costs would require several huge, fundamental changes. For example, healthcare should focus on preventing (rather than treating) preventable disease, providers should prioritize cost-effective business practices and citizens should all live healthy lifestyles and get living wills. It’s a wonderful dream and absolutely attainable if everyone works together. In the near future, however, we have yet another increase to contend with.
And while it’s true you can’t spell hero without HR, that still doesn’t give you the superhuman ability to fix the American healthcare system by yourself. However, you can make a huge difference to the employees who look to you for help and guidance. You can have all the answers ready when they complain about rising premiums. You can proactively support healthy lifestyle choices with an employee wellness program. Most importantly, you can design an inclusive benefits package with perks that help offset rising costs.
Now that you know the many complex causes of rising healthcare costs, you’ve taken the first step toward combatting them. For example, one great way to offset rate increases is to add money-saving perks, like employee discount programs, to your benefits package. They’ll help soften the blow of increased premiums and provide ways for employees to stretch their paychecks a little further. For insights around picking the best perks (and the best employee discount programs) for your group, read How To Pick The Right Voluntary Benefits and A Buyer’s Guide for Employee Discount Programs.