Health Care Costs Will Be Higher Than Half Of Country's Income By 2037: Study

Your Health Insurance Could Cost More Than You Make

Health insurance will cost more than the median income of an American household by 2037 -- and that's the best-case scenario, two doctors contend in a new study.

The reason: Wages for U.S. workers are stagnating and health care costs are rising so quickly that even if the health reform law enacted two years ago by President Obama works as advertised, health insurance premiums will surpass income for many Americans in the coming decades, according to an article published in the journal, Annals of Family Medicine (h/t U.S. News and World Report).

Under a less rosy scenario, insurance costs will reach the tipping point in 2033, Richard Young of John Peter Smith Hospital in Forth Worth, Texas, and Jennifer DeVoe of Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, who conducted the study, found.

Things are going to get worse without more aggressive efforts to rein in health care spending, they say:

If health insurance premiums and national wages continue to grow at recent rates and the U.S. health system makes no major structural changes, the average cost of a family health insurance premium will equal 50% of the household income by the year 2021, and surpass the average household income by the year 2033. If out-of-pocket costs are added to the premium costs, the 50% threshold is crossed by 2018 and exceeds household income by 2030.

Meanwhile, fewer workers are getting insurance from their jobs and those who do have coverage are paying higher premiums while also seeing their benefits cut back and their out-of-pocket costs grow. Health care composed 17.3 percent of the entire U.S. economy in 2010 and grew faster than gross domestic product by 2.4 percent from 2000 to 2009, the study says. Almost 50 million Americans had no health insurance in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Obama's health care law aims to fix that last problem. By 2021, health reform is projected to provide insurance to 24 million people through "exchanges" that allow them to find coverage and to qualify for financial assistance. In addition, the law would provide coverage for 17 million people through the Medicaid program for the poor, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

In a similar study DeVoe published in 2005, she projected that health insurance premiums would outstrip median income eight to twelve years sooner. But the reprieve isn't because anything good happened in the meantime, Young and DeVoe say in their new paper.

Health care costs are still growing, though the rate slowed in recent years, in large part because because people without jobs or insurance went without medical care during the economic downturn. At the same time, those who had jobs had less money to spend on health care as average household income declined from $50,300 in 2008 to $49,800 in 2009, the study says.

Obama's health reform law contains myriad policies designed to slow escalating health care costs. The law cut Medicare payments to hospitals and other medical providers and created financial incentives for health insurers, doctors, hospitals, and others to band together to reduce waste, improve care, and save money. Health reform will also impose a tax in 2018 on the most expensive insurance plans in an aim to encourage people to buy cheaper coverage.

Young and DeVoe are skeptical about health reform's impact on costs and favor cutting "administrative overhead" in the health care system, namely profits earned by health insurance companies.

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