N.H. No. 2 in health benefits costs

New Hampshire is second in the nation when it comes to the cost of health benefits, according to a survey of employer-sponsored heath plans.

The survey, conducted by the human resources consulting company Mercer Health and Benefits, found that total health benefit costs for Granite State employees, including medical, dental, dependent coverage and worker contributions, increased by 3.9 percent to $9,727.

The average health benefit cost for employees throughout New England was $8,180 — a 6.3 percent increase in the region. The survey of 3,000 employers across the country (154 from New England) indicated a 6.1 percent increase in the cost of health benefits nationally, to $7,523.

While health benefit costs in New Hampshire are among the highest, the percentage increase was the lowest of the 10 most expensive states.

Costs in Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island and Vermont increased by 8.2 percent, 6 percent, 4.1 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

Deborah Wozniak, spokesperson for Mercer, indicated New Hampshire’s high cost of health benefits may be geographically linked.

“My sense is the majority of New Hampshire employers are based south enough that many of their participants utilize services in Massachusetts,” Wozniak said. “You’re going to see similar patterns.”

Massachusetts’ health benefit costs are the fourth highest in the country, at $9,428. The Bay State’s increase in cost of 8.2 percent was the ninth highest nationally.

Nationwide, health benefit costs have remained stable, at 6.1 percent, for each of the last two years. Employers predict a similar increase for 2007, prompting Mercer officials to wonder whether or not a change among employers to concentrate on promoting better health among their employees as a cost-saving method rather than continuing a focus on cost-shifting may prove an effective cost management strategy.

“If cost growth in health benefits has stopped slowing, will it now start to accelerate?” said Marie Chambers, Mercer health and benefits consultant.

While consumer-directed health plans based on either health reimbursement accounts or health savings accounts tripled among small employers to 6 percent and more than doubled among large employers to 11 percent, New England employers have been slow to adopt the practice, according to Wozniak.

“New England has lagged behind in this national trend, in part because it is such an HMO-dominant area,” Wozniak said. “That really took away the cost-sharing mentality.”

While consumer-directed health plan statistics were not readily available for New Hampshire, the survey indicated 6 percent of employees in New England take part in a consumer-directed plan, while 42 percent continue to be covered by PPOs, 21 percent by HMOs, 28 percent in point-of-service plans and 4 percent in traditional indemnity plans. – TRACIE STONE

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