Health benefit costs are expected to grow by almost 4% in 2020, according to the early results from a survey of employer-sponsored health plans released by human resources consultancy Mercer on September 19.

Based on responses from 1,511 U.S, employers, the survey projects that the average total health benefits cost per employee will rise by 3.9% in 2020. Researchers observed that while this growth rate continues the trend of low single-digit increases that began in 2012, health benefit costs are still rising faster than overall inflation.

The survey also found that cost-shifting to employees is expected to play a smaller role in 2020 than in recent years, with just 43% of responding employers saying that they intend to raise deductibles or otherwise cut benefits to hold down costs in 2020. Researchers reported that the underlying medical trend, or the amount costs would increase if employers renewed plans without making any changes, has decreased from 8% in 2014 to 5.2% in 2020, which may have eased some of the pressure to make short-term cost reductions.

Researchers also pointed out that in recent years, employers have been adopting strategies for reducing costs via improved health outcomes, such as providing targeted support for specific health conditions and encouraging plan members to use higher-quality providers. For example, 39% of employers with 500 or more employees surveyed in 2019 reported that they provide access to a Center of Excellence (COE) for cardiology, bariatric surgery, cancer, and other complex treatments. Moreover, 16% of these employers said they steer employees to the COE through lower cost-sharing, or even require them to use it.

The survey findings further suggested that in support of providing higher-quality care, employers continue to add technology-enabled programs designed to help members with specific health issues, such as diabetes, insomnia, and infertility. The results showed, for example, that 62% of respondents with 500 or more employees reported offering one or more of these targeted solutions in 2019, compared to 55% in 2018.

In addition, the survey found that access to health benefits information and resources is increasing, as of the employers with 500 or more employees surveyed in 2019, 40% said that all or most of their benefit offerings are accessible to employees on a single, fully-integrated digital platform, most often through a smartphone app; up from 34% surveyed in 2018.