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Wednesday, October 22, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

The unsustainable costs of medical coverage

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Among the million-dollar sums in the proposed King County budget is one number that stands out: $951, the monthly cost of health insurance for the average county employee.

That is next year's figure. It is high. It is also up 19 percent in one year. The county's tax revenue is expected to be up about 1 percent.

These are costs that are not sustainable and must be counted in next year's negotiations with employees.

King County is not alone. The city of Everett will be paying $900 to $1,000 per employee per month, up 35 percent from this year. It expects an increase in tax revenues of about 2 percent.

At a typical employer, the cost of medical benefits is going up about 15 percent, says Mercer Human Resources Consulting. But hardly any organization's ability to pay is increasing at 15 percent.

By making existing employees more and more expensive, we hinder the hiring of new ones and prolong economic stagnation.

More employers are making employees pay the increases in health-care premiums. Everett and King County don't do this, but will have to. Next year, most city of Seattle employees will pay for half the 14-percent increase in insurance premiums, though police still pay none. Similar demands elsewhere have led to strikes, and almost did in Seattle earlier this year with the janitors' contract.

Still the costs rise, because no matter who pays the premium, to the patient, medicine is cheap. Even with co-pays ($20 at King County, zero at Everett), for many, "a visit to the doctor is cheaper than a visit to the barber," says Mary McWilliams, the CEO of Regence Blue Shield.

Americans are seeing the doctor more often and paying a smaller percentage of the costs.

Industry is expensively developing and advertising new drugs. We have Viagra and OxyContin — and we want them. When we see the bill, we suspect that someone is being driven by "greed." We condemn the drug companies — and invite them to South Lake Union.

Each player in the game can demand a national solution, which is not a lot different than throwing one's hands in the air.

Meanwhile, each unit of economic life has to solve its own problem — and an increase of 15 percent and more, year after year, is not acceptable.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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