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Getting to the bottom of Counter-Intuitive Data

By Clive Riddle

The KFF/HRET Annual Survey of Employer Sponsored Benefits and Smaller versus Larger Group Premium Costs

Results were recently released from The Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research & Educational Trust  Annual Survey of Employer Sponsored Benefits. This year’s 214 page document is a must read if you want a statistical photo album, as opposed to a snapshot, of employer health benefits landscape.

While the KFF/HRET is rightfully one of the most often cited, and leading sources for employer health benefit statistics, the results occasionally contain data that seems counter-intuitive.  Digging through this year’s document, the comparison of  smaller versus larger employer group premium costs raises such a red flag.

Intuition would guide us to believe that larger employer groups would experience lower premium costs and lower premium increases. Historically, a wide number of studies from national benefit consulting firms have borne this out.

But the 2008 KFF/HRET survey tells us that premiums are now cheaper for smaller firms (3-199 workers) compared to larger firms (200+ workers), with the average monthly single premium at $382 for smaller versus $397 for larger firms (3.9% higher), and the average monthly family premium at $1,008 for smaller versus $1,081 for larger firms (7.2% higher.) The report notes that in past years, any differential was not so significant.

What gives? It of course is always tempting in such situations to dismiss the information as a result of skewed data and a faulty survey. But who are we to know that this is case? Instead, the answers may still be in front of us. The report doesn’t specifically respond with answers to this vexing question, but it does supply enough detailed data to offer some explanations, if you dig one level deeper.

And in digging, it would appear that the difference could be due to benefit packages, plan funding, and demographics.

When broken down by plan of benefits, smaller firm premiums are actually more expensive for a number of categories (Family HMO, Single PPO, Single and Family HDHP) and the differential is not as pronounced where larger firms are more expense (3.2% higher for Single HMO and 2.4% higher for Family PPO) except for POS premiums, which don’t have that significant of enrollment.

Thus part of the explanation for less expensive smaller firm premiums could simply be in the mix of benefit packages (HMO vs PPO vs HDHP etc) for smaller firms vs larger firms. On top of that, a good portion of the explanation could be in the level of cost sharing, which impacts premium costs. For example, the average Single PPO deductible for smaller firms was $917, compared to $413 for larger firms.

Another component of the explanation may be in that self-funded plan costs are running higher than fully funded plans. The report indicates that family self-funded premiums average 6.2% higher than fully funded premiums. The report also tells as that only 12% of smaller firms have some level of self-funding compared to 77% of larger firms. Furthermore, more large firms are trending towards self funding. 62% of workers with employers having 5,000+ employees self-funded in 1999, increasing to 89% in 2008, and 62% of workers with employers having 1,000 to 4,999 employees self-funded in 1999 compared to 76% in 2008.

Lastly, demographics can provide some of the explanation. Larger groups tend to have a slightly older population, and the report indicates that firms with less than 35% of workers aged 26 or under had 6.7% higher premium costs than firms with more than 35% of workers aged 56 and under. Larger groups tend to have workers with higher wage levels, and the report indicates that firms with less than 35% of workers earning $22,000 or less had 8.3% higher premium costs than firms with more than 35% of workers earning $22,000 or less. Lastly, larger firms tend to be more unionized, and the report indicates that firms with at least some union employees had 4.3% higher premiums than firms with no union employees.

The point of all this digging is to demonstrate, when considering reports as valuable of the KFF/HRET annual survey, not to just browse through the summary and walk away with a headline that smaller groups now have lower premiums than larger groups, as some news organizations have done, or to dismiss the survey as flawed, as some pundits have done. Digging through the data can yield explanations, which would seem to indicate that on an apples-to-apples basis, small groups aren’t really cheaper. Instead, small groups have higher cost sharing, a different mix of benefit plans, less self funding and demographics that make them “apples” compared to large firm “oranges”, and the apples do cost less than oranges in this case.

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