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Just when it seemed campaigning had wrapped up for 2004, there's another hard-fought contest going on -- the battle for your health coverage buck.

Move over George Bush and John Kerry, the candidates of the hour are Independent Health, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Univera and other providers of health insurance. As their intense advertising campaigns play out in broadcast and print ads, billboards and direct mail solicitations, workers across Western New York and the rest of the country are facing imminent deadlines to enroll in a health plan for 2005.

"It's overwhelming," said MartinO'Brien-Williams, a Lancaster logistics administrator, who faces a Nov. 30 deadline to choose a health plan for his family. His head is swimming with details about HMOs, PPOs and POS plans.

"The plan we've been in will cost a lot more for 2005, so I've had to wade through the materials from all the other companies to find something else that will work for us. It's not an easy decision,"O'Brien-Williams said.

Denise Dzierzewski, a Buffalo paralegal, has also been hit with unexpected health insurance homework because her current plan isn't among those being offered by her law firm for 2005.

"You have to go through each one of them to figure them out and it's a pain," Dzierzewski said.

O'Brien-Williams and Dzierzewski, like workers around the U.S., have found the rising cost of health insurance will mean they'll pay more and get less in the coming year.

Reports from several government and private sources have charted a 59 percent climb in health insurance premiums since 2000, while the average pay check increased less than 13 percent. The average cost of family coverage has ballooned from $7,028, to $9,320, over the same time period.

Meanwhile, the number of uninsured Americans has risen from 72.5 million to 85.2 million over the past four years.

"It's the road we're on, I'm afraid," said Jake Flaitz, of Mercer Human Resource Consulting, of Rochester. "Employees are seeing double-digit increases in health benefits and I don't see that changing anytime soon."

Mercer's 2003 survey of employee benefits found only 11 percent of companies paid the entire premium for individual health coverage, and just 7 percent covered the full cost of family plans. As recently as 2001, those statistics were 25 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

And just how large a share are we paying? According to Mercer, in 2003, workers at large companies (500 or more employees) anted up 24 percent of the cost of individual health coverage and 31 percent for family plans. At smaller businesses, the employee share was higher -- 40 percent for individual health benefits, and 55 percent for family coverage.

"When our 2004 numbers come out I'd expect we'll see that go even higher," Flaitz said.

In addition to higher premiums, workers will need to budget for higher co-pays, and even surcharges for spousal coverage, as employers hunt for ways to shift soaring health care costs off their bottom lines.

Dzierzewski has had her calculator out tallying up the projected costs of co-pays. She was surprised to learn she'll face hefty increases in co-pays for hospital visits, treatment from specialists and prescription drugs.

O'Brien-Williams said he's trying to look at the positive side and be happy his employer pays about 80 percent of the cost of health coverage. "I'm going to have to pay about $10 more per week, but it's still a good deal compared to paying for the whole thing myself. We could never afford it, so this isn't so bad," he said.


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