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Pioneer Editorial: Health care costs slowed, not contained

A new state Health Department report released Tuesday on health insurance cost trends provides reason for celebration -- but not cause to remove health care access and affordability off the public policy plate.

The state agency's Health Economics Program report shows that private health insurance premiums rose 4.5 percent in 2005 -- a vastly slower rate of growth than the 11.2 percent slap in 2004 and the slowest rate of growth since 1997.

The figures mean that employers are taking a reprieve from higher health insurance costs, and that hopefully is shifting to employee-paid insurance matches. The report attributes the change, in part, to health plans collecting more in premiums than they spent in 2004, but that trend may not hold for 2005.

Even slowing the growing rise in health care costs will help, and the news in the report should be well received by policy makers who label health care costs at the top of their issue agenda.

But the report also points to trends that are less assuring, and which demand that health care access and affordability remain on top.

As health care costs have risen, fewer people can afford private health care coverage. The report states that between 2001 and 2004, the share of Minnesotans covered by employer-based health insurance slipped from 68.4 percent of the population to 62.9 percent. It means more Minnesotans are forced into high-cost public assistance emergency care, after they've exhausted their personal resources.

Also, the report notes that employers are picking up more of the costs of their coverage, as out-of-pocket expenses in deductibles and co-payments rose to 13.1 percent of total spending in 2005, up from 9.9 percent in 2000. And, while the rate of growth in health care costs has slowed, it still outpaces increases in incomes and in inflation.

Serious concerns are still present about the future affordability of health care, especially for low-income people and people with chronic illness who are picking up a larger share of their health care bill.

Interestingly, the report shows the lowest rate of spending growth in physician services and nearly half -- 45 percent -- of spending growth in hospital services. Could that be an indicator that more people are seeing doctors less regularly, but waiting until the need for acute care brings them to the hospital?

Let's celebrate the reprieve from double-digit growth in premiums, but work even harder to ensure access to affordable health care for all Minnesotans.