HEALTH insurance premiums are up again, this time by a "modest" 6.1 percent, highlighting once more that the way Americans pay for medical care is in critical condition.
Annual premiums for employer-sponsored family health insurance topped $12,000 for the first time this year, while the average amount picked up by workers rose to $3,281.
The good news in the Kaiser Family Foundation survey is that the increase was the smallest since 1999. The bad news is that wages over the same period rose only 3.7 percent and inflation stood at 2.6 percent. Indeed, since 2001 premiums for family coverage have gone up 78 percent, wages 19 percent, and consumer prices 17 percent. Essentially, ballooning health-care costs eat up all the gains workers make from rising wages and low inflation.
But the bad news doesn't stop there. Many businesses that took part in the survey said they plan to make significant changes to their health plans. Nearly half said they were likely to raise premiums. With inflation remaining low and no economic windfall for workers on the horizon, that means more of the same bad medicine next year.
And those companies that aren't passing on higher costs to workers are often eliminating health-care coverage entirely. About 177 million Americans are covered by employer-provided health insurance - not a bad number until you compare it to the 179 million covered in 2000, when there were about 20 million fewer Americans.
There were 47 million Americans without health insurance in 2006, a number that can only rise as more employers eliminate coverage as a worker benefit.
On top of that, Americans can't even claim with certainty that they have the world's best health care. Numerous surveys from groups such as the Commonwealth Fund have suggested the United States ranks behind other nations in critical areas.
And, as we have noted previously, while Americans are living longer they are losing the life expectancy race as well, falling from 11th to 42nd in world rankings over the last two decades.
Neither workers nor employers can continue to idly watch as health premiums skyrocket. Medicare and Medicaid cannot indefinitely absorb working Americans who can't afford to buy health insurance, and leaving millions more uninsured is not an option. Neither is poorer health care or reducing health-care options for those who can't afford insurance.
The tendency of Congress is to make noise about topics like health care during elections but to take no action until a crisis arises. But the country cannot afford to wait until the health-care equivalent of 9/11 strikes and lawmakers overreact, as they did to the terror attacks, by doing the wrong things and wasting time and money.
Now is the time to act, while there is the opportunity to consider options and devise a universal health-care system that is both cost-effective and maintains or improves upon the current standard of care.