What to expect from company health insurance plans in 2014

Obamacare may be in the spotlight, but an estimated 16 million California employees are facing healthcare decisions of their own — at work.

Like most other Americans, a majority of Californians get their insurance through their employers. Although they may be among the least affected by the Affordable Care Act, a flood of news about the new law has left many workers befuddled about their own coverage.

Adding to the confusion is that this is the season when employers are asking workers to re-enroll in company health plans for 2014 and to pick among a variety of healthcare options.

"There is a lot of confusion among the workforce," says Hugo Sibrian, a benefits consultant based in Los Angeles who works with a number of large companies, including Vernon meatpacker Farmer John.

Sibrian says some employees mistakenly believe they are eligible for hefty subsidies or low-cost insurance plans available to the nation's poorest citizens under Obamacare.

That's rarely the case. Under federal law, those offered coverage at work generally are not eligible for financial help from the government.

For workers enrolling in company health plans for 2014, choices can be numerous and complicated. And as the price of healthcare continues to rise, employers are shifting more of the costs to workers.

With deadlines looming to select coverage, experts say consumers may discover:

- higher monthly premiums, typically deducted from worker paychecks

- increases in deductibles, co-pays and other charges

- cheaper health plan options with more limited choices of doctors and hospitals

- more attention to worker health and wellness

Expect higher premiums

Although hardly a new trend, the biggest difference employees can expect in their health benefits for 2014 is an increase in what they pay.

According to a number of industry surveys, employers will see a lower-than-average jump in health benefit costs of roughly 5% in 2014, due largely to healthcare costs rising at a historically low rate.

Employees are likely to see those costs passed along to them.

"You see workers paying more ... because premiums have gone up, but they've gone up proportionately to what employers have been paying," says Paul Fronstein with the Employee Benefit Research Institute. "You haven't really seen, surprisingly to some, employers ask workers to pay a greater percentage of premiums."

But Sibrian says the increases he sees firms facing for next year are closer to 15% over this year. About 4 to 5 percentage points of that increase is a direct result of new taxes levied on health insurance carriers to fund provisions of the Affordable Care Act, he said.

Out-of-pocket costs

To keep overall costs in check, employers make changes to their benefit offerings. This year is no exception.