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Colleges spent more on health costs for their employees in 2012 than they did in 2011, but the rate of growth slowed from the year before, perhaps in part because campuses are focusing increasingly on preventive care and on plotting out their health care costs years in advance, according to data from a new survey.

The annual study by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources surveys campuses about their health care benefits and, in even-numbered years like this one, their non-health benefits, too. About 350 respondents, representing about 485 institutions, participated in the 2012 survey.

2012 is the first year since at least 2009 that the rise in health care costs was smaller than in the year before. Colleges' median spending rose by 6.7 percent for employee-only coverage and 6.0 percent for employee/family coverage; while that is several percentage points higher than inflation, it is less than the 7.3 percent increases for both categories in 2011.

Other data points in the CUPA-HR survey offer some insights into why those costs might be edging down. About a third of responding institutions said they had "developed a strategy for what their health care benefits should be in three years." While that's lower than many business strategists would probably like, it is higher than in 2011, when just a quarter of campuses said they had done so.

And the proportion of colleges and universities reporting that they have a wellness program (aimed at encouraging and rewarding healthy behaviors that might lessen the need for medical care) rose to 70 percent in 2012, up from 60 percent in 2011 and 52 percent in 2009. That increase aside, it's hard to gauge the reach of such programs; the survey reports that fewer than half of the programs have their own budgets (with a median of $30,000), and that only one in five institutions knew what proportion of their employees were participating in the wellness programs.

Among other highlights of the survey:

  • The proportion of colleges and universities adding consumer-driven health care plans to their mix of options grew to 34 percent, from 27 percent in 2011 and 11 percent in 2007. Consumer-driven plans, which typically feature higher deductibles and lower premiums, have risen in popularity generally, amid significant debate about whether they lower overall costs or just shift them more to employees.
  • 57 percent of respondents offered health care benefits for same-sex partners and 42 percent did so for opposite-sex domestic partners in 2012, compared to 56 percent and 43 percent in 2011.
  • Fewer institutions solicited competitive bids for their health care providers in 2012 (38 percent) than in 2011(when about half did).
  • The proportion of colleges and universities offering tuition benefits to employees for courses taken at their own institutions fell slightly, to 96 percent from 98 percent in 2011.
  • About a quarter of respondents provided child day care, and had paid leave for a new parent over and above vacation and sick leave.

More information about the CUPA-HR survey and ordering information can be found on the association's website.

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