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Big employers expect health costs to continue rising by about 6% in 2017, a moderate increase compared with historical trends that nevertheless far outpaces growth in the economy, two new surveys show.

“These cost increases, while stable, are both unsustainable and unacceptable,” said Brian Marcotte, CEO of the National Business Group on Health, a coalition of very large employers that got responses from 133 companies.

Employers are changing tactics to address the trend, slowing the shift to worker cost sharing and instead offering video or telephone links to doctors, scrutinizing specialty-drug costs and steering patients to hospitals with records of lower costs and better results.

Most large-company employees should expect a 5% increase in their premiums next year and, in contrast to previous years, “minimal changes” to plan designs, NBGH said.

The portion of employers offering high-deductible health plans next year — 84% — is essentially unchanged from 2016, according to the NBGH report. So is the percentage of companies offering high-deductible plans — 35% — as the only choice for workers and families.

Patients with high-deductible coverage pay thousands of dollars in medical costs before the insurance kicks in.

The idea is that sharing the pain makes employees smarter shoppers, prompting them to forego unneeded tests and find the best price. But critics say available tools to shop for care are grossly inadequate.

Counting cost-control measures, companies responding to NBGH’s survey expect their net health expenses to rise by 5% next year. A survey of hundreds of employers by consultants Willis Towers Watson showed similar results.

“This is well above the cost-of-living increase,” said Julie Stone, health care practice leader at Willis Towers Watson. To control costs, “our clients are willing to do things that a few years ago employers might have been reluctant to do,” she said.

Five or 6% is moderate compared with medical-cost growth in the early 2000s, when annual percentage increases reached double digits.

But it’s still far greater than recent increases in corporate profits and economic output. Economists partly blame the skimpy raises workers have received over the past decade on the ballooning resources employers had to devote to health spending.

Moderate cost trends in the large-employer market seemingly contrast with those in the Affordable Care Act’s online marketplaces, where plans sold to individuals are seeking premium increases of 10% or more.

But the variation has more to do with volatility in how insurance companies price their plans than with big differences in underlying costs, said Larry Levitt, a senior vice president with the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. This story is part of a partnership that includes Health News Florida, WMFE, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

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