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Health Insurance Costs Rising For Some Montanans

Average Employee Premium Contribution Plus Average Deductible as Percent of Median State Income in 2017.
The Commonwealth Fund
Average Employee Premium Contribution Plus Average Deductible as Percent of Median State Income in 2017.

A new report says that last year Montanans who got health insurance through their jobs still spend up to 11 percent of their incomes on premiums and deductibles.

Report co-author Sarah Collins with the non-partisan Commonwealth Fund says that can lead to people getting less health care, even though they have insurance.

“Research shows that when people face higher out-of-pocket costs, higher deductibles, they’re a lot less likely to get needed health care. They’re much more likely to say they didn’t fill a prescription, for example, because of the cost, when they have a high deductible," Collins says.

The Commonwealth Fund says the amount that Montana employees contribute to their health insurance premiums actually went down last year, although it’s still trended up significantly since 2011.

“And that means that U.S. families with moderate and low incomes are spending more of their income on premiums," Collins says. "But we also find this extra spending on premiums really isn’t buying people better coverage in a lot of states, since deductibles are also climbing.”

Employers’ share of insurance premium costs for single plans in Montana grew by 5 percent last year. That compares to about a 3 percent average annual growth from 2011 to 2016.

“But what we see in the data in Montana is that on average, employees are being asked to share less of that cost," Collins says. "In Montana, people contribute about 27 percent of the cost of their plan, which is slightly below the national average.”

But those savings are offset in Montana by those growing deductibles.

“Deductibles grew at about 6 percent last year, just like they did over 2011 to 2016. So, premiums may have gone down a little bit in terms of what families are paying, but people are seeing higher out-of-pocket costs," Collins says.

About 43 percent of Montanans get their health insurance through their jobs, and that’s one reason Collins describes Montana’s Medicaid expansion program as, "extremely important."

“And that is because if your income is below $34,000 for a family of four, you are eligible for Medicaid regardless of whether or not you get an offer of insurance from your employer. The premium contributions in Medicaid are a lot less, the out-of-pocket exposure is a lot less, so it’s a much more affordable option for people who make a somewhat lower income.”

Collins adds that Medicaid expansion also benefits small business owners who would otherwise struggle to cover their workers’ insurance costs.

For people who don’t get insurance through their jobs, and make too much to qualify for Medicaid, low cost plans are available through, but only until December 15. The latest figures show that only about a quarter of Montanans who are eligible to buy plans through that website have done so, and that that number is down by 3,000 compared to this time last year.

Read The Commonwealth Fund’s full report titled “The Cost of Employer Insurance is a Growing Burden for Middle Income Families.”

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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