In Washington -- where $3 may not buy you a gallon of gas, a gallon of milk or a small latte -- you can still find a good deal. On health insurance.

That surprise comes from Hewitt Associates, a major human resources services firm that issued a nationwide report last week on health care costs at 400 major companies.

Hewitt said those firms are spending more than $7,300 per employee this year on health care, up more than 9 percent from 2004.

So where's the bargain for Washingtonians?

Of the 15 metropolitan areas surveyed by the company, Washington ranked near the bottom in terms of costs, at $6,675 per employee. Boston, Dallas/Forth Worth and New York led the list, spending around $8,000 per worker.

Of course, that's just the companies' share of the bill. The Hewitt report also shows that this year employees are spending, on a nationwide average, more than $2,800 on premiums and out-of-pocket expenses such as deductibles and coinsurance -- up from $1,400 in 2000. For 2006, the worker's share of health care is projected to rise another 10 percent or so.

While health care expenses are rising less steeply than they did in 2002, 2003 and 2004 -- 12 to 15 percent was the norm then -- Hewitt isn't pretending that the 2006 projections will be a relief, even for those in Washington.

"While it is encouraging to see cost increases stabilizing, the rate of growth remains unsustainable and the magnitude of health care costs continues to be a major concern for employers' bottom lines and employees' wallets," Hewitt spokesman Craig Dolezal said in a statement.

-- Tom Graham