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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Health insurance premiums to rise in county

Many payroll stubs in Spokane County are again showing a double-digit rise in health insurance premiums, the unpleasant but all-too-familiar realization that cost of living raises are being gobbled up by, well … the cost of living.

Spokane City Hall, for example, is dealing with a 19 percent premium hike, said spokeswoman Marlene Fiest. There are 2,000 city workers. While they don’t pay a premium for themselves, they are hit with rising rates to insure spouses and dependents.

But the premium increase for the city of Spokane is higher than average.

Curtis Taylor, a senior vice president and general manager for Marsh, the region’s largest insurance broker, said premium hikes in Spokane County will average about 10 percent to 12 percent for 2005.

While admittedly steep, the rate increases are down from the 16 percent to 20 percent premium hikes last year.

Messages to the area’s two largest insurance providers, Group Health Cooperative and Premera Blue Cross, were not returned Friday. In the past, insurers have attributed premium increases to market conditions and the rising cost of treating patients.

While premiums are climbing quickly, so are deductibles. Patients are being asked to dig deeper into their own pockets for co-pays and average deductibles have risen to about $400 – up from $200 just five years ago.

Pat Clarry, human resources director at Sacred Heart Medical Center, said the hospital’s 3,200 employees will pay more.

The region’s largest private employer offers many different health insurance plans to its work force and premium increases depend on the plan chosen.

On average, Clarry said, premiums for Sacred Heart employees will climb less than 10 percent this year.

“I’ve seen a lot of plans around the city and they’re high,” Clarry said.

Rising insurance rates give pause to businesses and are blamed for forcing low-income workers to abandon benefits offered by employers. It’s not unusual for a family of three or four to have premiums totaling well in excess of $500 a month.

In Spokane County there are 37,000 people without health insurance. That’s about 8.5 percent of the population.

In North Idaho, the uninsured make up 28 percent of the population.

Such uninsured patients are driving the trend of unpaid bills at regional hospitals, which have been blamed for much of the hospitals’ financial woes over the past year.