By Bob Weaver

The average cost of health insurance for a family of four has soared past $11,000 exceeding the annual income of a minimum-wage earner, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Since 2000, premiums have risen by 73%, according to the Kaiser study.

The head of Blue-Cross and Blue Shield of WV says the cost for such a family is expected to reach about $16,000 by 2007.

Red flags have been waving all over the US for several years, over the relentless rise in premiums.

Providers and insurance companies proclaim neither are making lots of money. Insurers blame doctors, hospitals and consumer demand for new medical technology for escalating rates. They all blame lawyers for "frivolous" lawsuits.

Such premiums threatens to collapse the pillar of America's health insurance system - job-based health coverage.

Rising costs are forcing many businesses, especially smaller companies, to stop offering coverage.

Employees can no longer afford insurance at work, or buy it on their own.

They are going without, a problem that is causing a rise in personal bankruptcy across the US, although the government has just made it more difficult for individuals to exercise that option.

"What we are seeing is an unraveling of the way we finance health care in the United States," said William Custer, director for the Center for Health Services Research at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "It is coming apart at the edges, and those edges are small business and low-wage workers. The levees are breaking."

Drew E. Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said the cumulative effect of rising costs was that "we are seeing a slow deterioration of our employment-based health insurance system, which has been the backbone of health care in this country."

Certainly, private citizens, unless they have lots of money, are unable to afford health insurance.

Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz said his company would spend more on health insurance for its employees this year than on raw materials needed to brew its coffee.

"It's completely non-sustainable," he said, even for companies such as his that "want to do the right thing."

This year Kaiser researchers collected data from 2,995 randomly selected U.S. employers.

The average employee contribution has increased by more than $1,000 in three years.

Employers, equally hard-pressed by the rising costs, increasingly are dropping health coverage as an employee benefit or offering high-deductible plans, like Ames-TrueTemper last week in Parkersburg that offered $5,000 deductible on individual coverage and $10,000 deductible on family coverage.

The union workers rejected the offer, the plant is closing and going to Mexico and China, where they don't have to worry about such things.

"Employers don't have a competitive advantage to providing you health insurance any more than they have in buying you a house or a pair of running shoes," John R. Graham, director of health care studies at Pacific Research Institute.

The federal government has not issued a real wake-up call to policymakers and health care providers since Hilary Clinton made health care reform part of her husband's agenda twelve years ago.

She was quickly beaten down by insurance and health care corporations who declare the business is best served by remaining in the private marketplace

If that is so, why the problem?

Although Congress passed a costly new Medicare prescription-drug benefit, efforts to revamp the system have failed.

The public was not repetitive to President George Bush's plan to commence privatizing Medicare, because the marketplace has failed to deliver.

Consumer advocates question why premium increases are needed as insurance industry profits rise.

"What the HMOs can't explain is why premiums are increasing twice as fast as hospital and physician costs," said Jerry Flanagan of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Santa Monica nonprofit, but hospital costs are rising.

The number of Americans without health insurance continues to grow, now estimated at 46-50 million, with another 50 million having "limited coverage," meaning poor coverage.

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