What Are We Doing About Ridiculous Healthcare Costs?

Count me in as one of the many people frustrated by healthcare costs.

As an editor and reporter who has been covering the unsustainable rising cost of coverage–and as an employee who personally has to deal with it–the issue has been depressing, to say the least.

Maybe it’s because I was in the hospital late last year for a medical emergency for several days and I’m still getting bills I’m unsure about–making me one of the many dealing with unforeseen or surprise medical bills. Maybe it’s because healthcare costs are expected to top a whopping $15,000 per employee (!!) next year, according to the National Business Group on Health. Maybe it’s ludicrous prescription drugs costs. Or because research from the Integrated Benefits Institute recently found that one-third of workers go without needed care because they can’t afford it.

It’s not just depressing; it’s unsustainable.

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“It’s alarming because it’s [growing] faster than wages, it’s higher than inflation, and it’s increasing at an unsustainable rate over time,” says Ellen Kelsey, NBGH chief strategy officer.

While rising healthcare costs are nothing new–rates are rising 4% or 5% year-over-year, on average–are we finally hitting a point where we’re ready to do something, with employers leading the charge? Signs point to yes. More employers are stepping up to address the problem, realizing that employees who are dealing with stress over the high cost of care are likely to be less productive at work. From virtual care and tech solutions to centers of excellence and direct contracting, the opportunities are endless for employers trying to cut costs for their organizations and for their employees. It’s a smart and needed move. Employers are in the power position to lead the charge and to come up with strategies that not only help lower healthcare costs, but also reinvigorate their workforce.

“Employers are making investments not just for the sake of health and managing healthcare costs, but ultimately because they fundamentally believe it’s the right thing to do for the employees and their families, and it does have an impact on the overall organization,” Kelsey says.

But perhaps the most exciting development is–dare I say it–an interest in working with the government. Employers historically have been reluctant to get lawmakers involved, but it looks like things might be shifting.

For instance, according to NBGH, three-quarters of employers say they would consider backing a plan where the government negotiates a price for all payers for drugs above $1 million, paid for out of a national fund. Meanwhile, nearly half would favor national funding to underwrite part of the cost for such drugs, and 35% would consider supporting shifting patients with certain high-cost conditions to Medicare. And, more than half of large employers say they support expanding Medicare to make more Americans under 65 eligible for the health insurance coverage.

Meanwhile, more than 60 big employer groups recently sent a letter urging Congress to pass the Lower Health Care Cost Act–which essentially caps payments to out-of-network providers in the event of a surprise bill–and ultimately call for legislation that would take aim at surprise medical bills, prescription-drug costs, healthcare transparency and other issues.

These are all positive steps.

Employer innovation is at a turning point, and with that innovation should be an increased willingness to do whatever it takes to make a dent in unsustainable healthcare costs. That just might mean getting their voices heard by lawmakers. With the presidential election just a year away, it’s yet another opportunity that must be seized if we want to make serious changes.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.