Magazine article Government Finance Review

Fitch Ratings: Rising Health Care Costs Taking a Toll on Local Government Finances

Magazine article Government Finance Review

Fitch Ratings: Rising Health Care Costs Taking a Toll on Local Government Finances

Article excerpt

The rising costs of employee health care and health insurance have created significant budgetary, financial, and management challenges for U.S. state and local governments over the past five years, according to a new Fitch Ratings survey. As governments seek to manage cost increases by shifting them to public employees, significant problems may arise pertaining to productivity, morale, and retention.

The cost to local governments of providing employee health care increased an average of 14.2 percent per year between 2000 and 2004, compared to overall annual expenditure growth of 5.5 percent. According to U.S. economic data, wages grew 3.2 percent and inflation averaged 2.4 percent over the same period. Most survey respondents expect future employee health care cost increases to be in the 7 to 10 percent range.

As the growth of health insurance costs has far outpaced other government expenditures, its relative importance to total operating costs has increased. Health insurance constituted an average of 5.4 percent of the responding governments' 2004 operating expenses, up from 3.4 percent in 2000. Health care cost increases have had an even greater effect on local governments than private sector employers because governments have historically provided more generous health insurance benefits to their workers.

Fitch expects employee health care costs will be an increasingly important credit consideration for government issuers. As part of the normal credit review process, Fitch analysts now seek information from municipalities on their current employee health care expenses, expected growth in these costs, flexibility to control the increases, and details on plans to do so. Fitch believes that the problem is most severe for issuers whose financial operations are already strained and those with limited revenue-raising capacity or other financial flexibility. However, given the likelihood for costs to continue to increase, even issuers that have historically had positive financial operations and maintained strong fund balances may be affected if health care costs are not proactively and cautiously managed.

To control costs, 61 percent of respondents have shifted a greater share of the cost to employees by lowering the employer contribution rates on insurance premiums and/or increasing copayments and deductibles. …

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