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Rising costs changing Americans' healthcare habits

Rising costs are forcing Americans to change the way they use the healthcare system, according to the results a survey released this week.

However, the jury’s out for consumers on whether the changes are for the best or will eventually save them money.

Some 63 percent of Americans reported an increase in insurance costs this year, according to a survey of 1,000 consumers by EBRI, a provider of data and education on economic security and employee benefits.

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In the 2007 edition of its Health Confidence Survey, 81 percent of respondents said rising costs are forcing them to take better care of themselves, while 66 percent said they were increasing efforts to review cost and care options with their physicians.

But on the negative side, rising costs caused 64 percent of respondents to seek care only when they had serious conditions or symptoms. Some 50 percent said they have delayed going to the doctor and 28 percent didn’t fill prescriptions because of the high cost of care.

“These results show the impact of rising healthcare costs is widespread and growing,” said Dallas Salisbury, EBRI president. “Previous surveys showed rising healthcare costs were affecting the household finances of many Americans. This year, we learned that costs also are influencing how much individuals use the healthcare system, even to the point of delaying care when that could be harmful. It should be no surprise that the overwhelming majority of Americans are not satisfied with the costs of health insurance.”

The survey also found that 82 percent of Americans felt positively about wellness programs in general, and 72 percent were comfortable with the specific programs offered by employers. For example, the survey asked if people would participate in an employer health plan that offered a reduction in health insurance premiums if a general medical examination found they had no illness or risky behaviors. If they didn’t pass their physical, participants could agree take steps to manage their illness and lower health risks to qualify for a reduction in health insurance of from 5 percent to 10 percent.

“We’re seeing a sharp increase in the number of workers taking advantage of wellness programs, which typically include health screenings and programs for exercise, weight loss, stress management, smoking cessation, and more,” said Jerry Ripperger, national practice leader of consumer health for the Principal Financial Group.

Responses on wellness programs bode well for increasing the scope of wellness offerings, but other recent studies have found employers questioning the return on their investment in wellness offerings for employees. For example, a third of 555 respondents to a recent survey by Buck Consulting said they experienced only modest reductions in healthcare costs as a result of wellness initiatives.

Barry Hall, a principal for New York-based Buck Consulting, said that despite the growing interest in these programs, employers may have to wait before they gain tangible benefits from these initiatives, many of which are in their infancy.