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Employers in Kansas and elsewhere are wrestling with the health care industry — and losing

A photo shows a hospital bill for $20,000.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

Premiums for health plans through private-sector jobs in Kansas shot up nearly 40% from 2010 to 2020. That’s twice as fast as general inflation.

One Topeka engineering firm does what it can to fight the ballooning cost of health care for its workers.

Bartlett & West — owned by its 350 employees across seven states — is trying a slew of approaches.

It has a wellness program. It tries to make preventive care easy to get. It pays its employees’ medical bills itself, rather than buying coverage from insurance companies.

And yet, year after year, its premiums climb.

“My fear is that the company will not be able to continue to absorb as much of that cost,” human resources benefits partner at Bartlett & West, Kim Walker, said at a forum this month on employers and health care, hosted by the Kansas Health Institute.

“I envision that, unfortunately, we’re going to have to reduce benefits,” she said, “and most especially pass on more costs to our employee-owners and their families.”

Employers in Kansas struggle to offer affordable health insurance. It gets harder and harder.

A new report finds premiums for health plans through private-sector jobs rose nearly 40% from 2010 to 2020. That’s twice as fast as general inflation.

Average yearly premiums in the state were nearly $12,000 as of 2020, the Kansas Health Institute report says. That’s typical across the country, but it takes a bigger bite out of paychecks here, where wages run below the national average.

(The institute receives funding from the Kansas Health Foundation, a funder of the Kansas News Service.)

Workers now shoulder a bigger share of their premiums than they did a decade ago, too. Fewer are even bothering to enroll in their employer’s health plans.

Phillip Steiner, a senior analyst at the institute, said premiums could rise even faster now that we’ve moved out of a low-inflation economy.

“If anything, it’s going up faster,” he said. “Now we’re in a very high-inflation environment.”

The more employees spend on premiums, the less they can sock away from their paychecks or put toward out-of-pocket costs.

A recent Commonwealth report ranks Kansas and Missouri in the five states where people with work-based insurance face combined premiums and deductibles that top $9,000 a year on average.

The growing costs facing Kansas employers and employees illustrate the stakes in U.S. health care, where annual spending grows much faster than broader economic inflation.

Research pins much of the blame on plain old hikes in the prices that doctors, hospitals, labs and the pharmaceutical supply chain charge for their services.

Those hikes mean the health care sector consumes an ever bigger slice of America’s economic pie. Public and private employers alike struggle to get much leverage against the industry.

In 1980, U.S. health spending was 9% of gross domestic national product. By 2000, it hit 13%. In 2018, it was nearly 18%.

The upshot often comes in the form of higher deductibles.

Just this year, Bartlett & West added a high-deductible health plan with a health savings account, Walker said.

Currently, it’s just one choice available to employees. But the goal is to help them get familiar with the plan design — because high deductibles may soon become the only option.

“We think that that could be a future for all of our employees,” Walker said. “And we don’t want to have to implement a type of plan like that and not prepare them for what that is and what that would involve.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Kim Walker's job title.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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