57 Percent of Workers Say Let Us Choose Health Plans

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Health insurance is by far everybody's favorite employer-provided benefit, according to a new study. Anyone who has ever shopped for, and paid for, health insurance knows that it's a bewildering process that ends in a dispiritingly large bill.

And indeed, the survey of more than 800 workers conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that nearly a third expressed little confidence they could find a suitable plan for themselves. Most are satisfied with the health plans they get at work, and 59 percent are sure their employer has found the best available plan.

Too bad that nearly everything about our health insurance system will soon be changing.

Next year, when the Obamacare health exchanges open, employees will have many more choices, including subsidized plans for the poorest workers, and a rating system that most workers surveyed said they felt only "somewhat confident" at best in using to compare competing plans. (Read More: Why Workers May Stay on the Job Longer)

While few experts predict that employers will simply leave their employees to forage in the exchanges, they are slowly pushing employees to pick up more of their own health costs. A grand bargain on the federal deficit, meanwhile, may end the tax deduction for health-insurance plans and begin counting our employers' share of our premiums as taxable income.

Our affection for the current system would survive at least some of these changes, according to EBRI's survey. Some seven in 10 employees would rather have health benefits than additional taxable income. If health premiums themselves do become taxable, EBRI's survey found, some 39 percent of workers would continue their coverage as is, while 26 percent would dial back their coverage to something less costly. Only 21 percent expect they'd look for insurance on their own, and 9 percent say they would do without any coverage.

But if employees mostly expressed satisfaction with the current system, EBRI's survey found that employees are also eager for plans that are shaped more closely to our lives. Despite the fact that most workers get some sort of choice in work-based plans, more than half of respondents to the survey were either extremely interested (26 percent) or very interested (29 percent) in more choices.

When asked about how they'd like to get their health insurance, nearly four in 10 said they'd continue to let employers select their coverage options for them as they do now. But nearly as many, 34 percent, said they'd rather take the money their employer spends on their insurance and have the freedom choose their own plan, even if they had to pay a little extra out of pocket.

Another 23 percent would take the money their employer spends on their premium to dispose of as they saw fit, even pocketing the money (presumably still tax-free) if they prefer to go without any coverage at all. (Read More: Rare Good News on Health-Care Retirement)

As we head into the grand experiment of universally mandated coverage, surveys like EBRI's tell us that Americans are responding with a mix of caution and bravado. We want to choose—but only if one of our choices is that nothing changes.