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WASHINGTON | Thu., May 31, 2012 12:00am EDT (Reuters) — The cost of U.S. health care services is expected to rise 7.5% in 2013, more than three times the projected rates for U.S. inflation and economic growth, according to an industry research report from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

But premiums for large employer-sponsored health plans could increase by only 5.5% as a result of company wellness programs and a growing trend toward plans that impose higher insurance costs on workers, the firm concluded.

The projected growth rate of 7.5% for overall health care costs contrasts with expectations for growth of 2.4% in U.S. gross domestic product and a 2% rise in consumer prices during 2013, according to the latest Reuters economic survey.

Health care costs have long been known to outstrip economic growth and inflation rates, driving up government spending on programs such as Medicare and Medicaid at a time when federal policymakers and lawmakers are wrangling over how to trim the U.S. budget deficit of $1 trillion a year.

But PwC's Health Research Institute, which based its research on input from health plan actuaries, industry leaders, analyst reports and employer surveys, said data for the past three years suggest an extended slowdown in healthcare inflation from earlier decades when annual costs rose by double-digits.

"We're in the early beginnings of a shift toward consumerism in health care. And we think that you'll see more of that in the coming months and years," said Ceci Connolly, the health institute's managing director.

More than half of the 1,400 employers surveyed by the firm are considering increasing their employees' share of health benefit costs and expanding health and wellness programs in 2013, according to the report.

Connolly said health plans with higher deductibles and co-pays for workers tend to dissuade unnecessary purchases and offer lower premium costs for employers, while successful wellness programs can reduce the need for medical services.

The report said prospects for higher growth are also being held back by the consolidation of hospitals and physician practices, insurance industry pressure on hospital expenses, a growing variety of primary care options such as workplace and retail health clinics, price transparency and the increasing use of generic drugs.

Upward pressure on health care costs comes in part from a rebounding economy and the growth of new medical technologies, including robotic surgery and the nuclear medicine imaging technique known as positron emission tomography.

PwC's projection of 7.5% growth is nearly double a 3.9% rise in U.S. health care spending that the federal government says occurred in 2010, the last year for which official figures are available.

(Reporting by David Morgan,; Editing by Jan Paschal)

© 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

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