The cost of health benefits for employers and employees rose by 4% for family coverage nationally this year, continuing a broad trend of relatively smaller increases in recent years, according to the most widely followed annual survey.
Premiums for family coverage averaged $15,745 this year, with workers paying an average of $4,316 of the cost, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research & Educational Trust 2012 Employer Health Benefits Survey released Tuesday.
Premiums for single coverage increased by 3%, to an average of $5,615, with the worker paying $951.
The rise in the cost of providing health benefits still outpaced the 2.3% rate of inflation.
Since 2002, the cost of health benefits has increased by 97% compared with a 28% increase in inflation. The increase has been even sharper going back to 1999 -- a 172% increase compared with a 38% increase in inflation.
The survey also does not take into account changes in health plans, such as higher deductibles, coinsurance and other cost sharing.
Still, the average increase in premiums of 4% this year contrasts with a 13% increase in 2003 and a 10% increase in 2004.
"A 4% increase is simply good news," Drew Altman, president and chief executive of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said in a teleconference.
The average cost of family coverage increased 9.5% last year. But Altman said the increase may have been an aberration that stemmed from employers and health insurers expecting a sharp increase in utilization as the economy recovered.
The smaller increases have been partly attributed to the sluggish economic recovery. But the growth in health plans with high deductibles also could be a factor.
Roughly one-third of workers who get health insurance from their employer are in plans with at least a $1,000 deductible. And 19% of workers are in high-deductible plans with a savings option, such as a health savings account. That's up from 8% in 2009.
Premiums vary based on benefits, cost sharing, geography and the size and type of employer. An estimated 19% of employers, for example, have plans that cost at least $18,894 for family coverage.
Among the other findings from the annual survey were:
Workers on average pay 18% of the total cost for single coverage and 28% for family coverage -- the same percentage as last year and relatively unchanged over the past decade.
Workers for small employers -- those with three to 199 employees -- on average pay 16% of the total cost for single coverage compared with 18% for those with large employers. But they pay more for family coverage -- 35% vs. 25% of the cost.
More than 14% of workers pay more than half of the cost of the premium for family coverage.
An estimated 61% of employers offer health benefits. But only 50% of employers with three to nine employees offer health benefits. The percentage increases to 73% for employers with 10 to 24 workers. Essentially all large employers offer health benefits, although part-time workers may not be eligible.
Overall, 77% of workers are eligible for the health benefits offered by employers.
Workers at companies where at least 35% of the workforce earns less than $24,000 a year pay an average of $1,000 more for family coverage than workers at companies where at least 35% of the workforce earns more than $35,000 a year.
The survey was done between January and May of this year and included 3,326 randomly selected, nonfederal public and private employers with three or more workers. Of those surveyed, 2,121 responded to the full survey and 1,205 responded to a single question about offering coverage.
The annual survey is done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy research organization based in Menlo Park, Calif., and Washington, D.C., and the Health Research & Education Trust, an affiliate of the American Hospital Association.