So, what can you do about the rising costs of health care? While premiums may continue to increase, there are steps you can take to manage your budget and offset costs.
Why health insurance premiums are climbing
While a number of factors contribute to the rising cost, Melissa Thomasson, department chair and professor of economics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has identified two main reasons for rising health insurance premiums: consolidation and billing.
Thomasson says that the increasing consolidation of health care is the main driver of rising premiums.
“People can look around, and they see physicians’ practices being purchased by hospitals. Well, every time that happens, those bills increase,” Thomasson says.
This is what you likely learned in high school economics class. “When competition is lowered, prices go up,” Thomasson says. “As hospitals merge, they have less competition and more leverage with the insurers, and the discounts get lower. Consolidation forces health care prices to go up.”
The second factor is “surprise billing,” Thomasson says. Every health care bill may seem like a surprise, given how you often don’t know what you’ll be charged. But Thomasson says that it’s becoming more common for consumers to receive extremely large bills for out-of-network care — even though they thought they were receiving care within their health insurance network.
“It doesn’t always occur to you to ask, ‘How much will it cost for somebody to read that X-ray?’” Thomasson says.
What you can do about rising health insurance premiums
Often, when you ask experts what can be done about rising insurance premiums, the answer is “not much.” But there are a few strategies you can use to try to tame your costs.
Tinker with your health insurance plan
Keep your plan, but talk to your insurance agent or the insurer directly about making changes.
Choosing a higher deductible and higher copays will lower your premium, says Matt Oves, an employee benefits account manager at Sahouri Insurance, an independent insurance brokerage located in Tysons Corner, Virginia.
“If you are healthy and do not anticipate any major health concerns, it may be smart to select a plan with higher deductibles,” Oves says.
However, it may not be a good idea if you often go to the doctor, or you anticipate needing to see a physician frequently in the near future. If you’re paying a smaller monthly premium but you’re shelling out higher copays two or three times a month throughout the year, you might wish you had kept your premium as it was.
Consider a health savings account (HSA) or flexible spending account (FSA)
Oves suggests taking advantage of an HSA or FSA if you can. Some people with high-deductible health insurance plans, as defined by the government, qualify for health savings accounts. Each year, you decide how much to contribute to your HSA, and that money is usually not subject to federal income tax. If you don’t use the money, it rolls over to the next year. That will help cover out-of-pocket costs. There are also investment options for HSA funds, providing an added bonus to those with high-deductible plans.
Flexible spending accounts are similar to HSAs, but the money doesn’t roll over to the next year and the account is owned by the employer. FSA contributions are deducted from your salary with pre-tax dollars. The employee usually receives a debit card to use for qualified health expenses. If you qualify for both an HSA and an FSA, you’ll likely find more flexibility and benefit from an HSA.
Look into a short-term health insurance plan
Adam Hyers, who owns Hyers and Associates, Inc., an insurance agency in Columbus, Ohio, says that many of his healthy clients have enrolled in short-term insurance plans that can last 12 months or longer.
“These policies now look much like what insurance plans did pre-ACA and can cover the insured for unknown, catastrophic types of issues. In many cases, premiums for short-term plans can be half as much as ACA-type policies,” Hyers says.
However, Hyers cautions, “short-term plans aren't the solution for everyone as they don't cover preexisting conditions, but they are a good option for those who just want to cover a bigger event that could happen throughout the year.”
In other words, it’s a stop-gap solution if you need a health plan while you look for a plan you can afford, you’re between jobs or you need coverage in case of an emergency.
Eating your fruits and vegetables, exercising and not doing unhealthy activities, like smoking, can help lower your insurance costs today and over time. Obesity and other conditions can increase your costs over time. Using your preventative health insurance every once in a while can help keep your health care costs lower in the future.
“Get routine checkups to catch health problems early and avoid paying for complex surgeries later,” Oves says.
Think of your body as a car. If you never change the oil because it’s expensive, eventually you’ll destroy your engine and be out far more money. If you don’t get an annual physical, you may pay for it later in a big way.
Talk to your representatives
Call your senator. Call your member of Congress. Thomasson recommends this if you’re looking for health care premium relief in the long run. If you feel that the government should be working to bring health care prices to more manageable levels — for you and your employer — then make your voice heard.
Your wages may be paying for insurance premiums
Thomasson notes that if your wages haven’t risen much lately, it may be due to your employer-provided health plan. “If your employer is paying for your higher and higher premiums, then you’re receiving compensation for that. And that’s the raise that your employer can’t give you,” Thomasson says.
There’s the chicken-and-egg irony in all of this. Your health plan is getting more expensive, which keeps your employer from offering you a higher salary, which makes your health plan even harder to pay for.
While it may be challenging to combat rising insurance premiums, knowing your options and taking small actions can help save you money today and in the future. While you may not be able to lower your premium, you can make changes to help offset the costs, or even inspire change in your workplace or community by understanding how insurance premiums work.
Geoff Williams is a freelance writer for MoneyGeek whose work has been published by U.S. News & World Report, Bankrate.com, Entrepreneur, CNN Money, and many other outlets.