Health insurance premiums rose more than six times faster than worker earnings in Tennessee and Georgia during the past decade, according to a study released Thursday.
Workers in both states suffered from a bigger gap between wages and premiums than most of the rest of the nation, the study showed.
A nonprofit group pushing for health care reform -- Families USA -- said premiums for family health care plans nearly doubled from 2000 to 2009 even while benefits were cut and deductibles and co-payments for employees were increased.
In the same period, median earnings increased only 15.9 percent in Tennessee and Georgia.
"Rising health care costs threaten the financial well-being of families across the country," said Ron Pollack, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Families USA. "If health reform does not happen soon, more and more families will be priced out of the market."
In Tennessee, the average annual health insurance premium for both employers and workers covered by family plans jumped from $6,550 in 2000 to $13,077 this year. Employees picked up a growing share of that cost, ranging from an annual average of $973 for individual coverage up to $3,583 for family coverage in Tennessee.
In comparison, median earnings of Tennessee's workers rose from $22,863 in 2000 to $26,506 in 2009.
A recent study from the Commonwealth Fund found that, on average, family insurance premiums in Tennessee are 20.3 percent of the average household income, a proportion that is higher than all other states except West Virginia.
In Georgia, family health care premiums rose from $6,637 in 2000 to $12,394 this year. Median income increased from $25,525 in 2000 to $29,000 this year in Georgia.
Ed Adams, president of EBS Benefit Consulting in Chattanooga, said most of his clients continue to face double-digit rate increases for their health care plans.
"Most employers have already made changes in their plans to raise deductibles, create Health Savings Accounts and require more co-pays from their workers," Mr. Adams said. "But the costs keep going up."
Small businesses, with smaller group insurance pools and little leverage to negotiate with insurers, fare the worst in terms of rates, said Joanne Denise, employee benefit specialist with Strategic Employee Benefit Services in Chattanooga.
"It only takes one diabetic in a group of eight or nine and, all of a sudden, everybody's rates are astronomical," she said.
Tennesseans rank fourth-worst in the nation in terms of obese adults, who often have higher medical costs, pushing up premium rates, brokers say. High prescription drug use and other health problems such as heart disease also are characteristic of the Volunteer State.
"That drives health care costs more than anything else. It's just utilization, because we as a state are unhealthy," said Russ Blakely, insurance agent in Chattanooga.
BY THE NUMBERS
* 99.6 -- Percentage increase in average family health care premiums from 2000 to 2009 in Tennessee
* 86.7 -- Percentage increase in average family health care premiums from 2000 to 2009 in Georgia
* 15.9 -- Percentage increase in median earnings from 2000 to 2009 in Tennessee and Georgia
Source: Families USA, U.S. Bureau of Census