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Below, a federal judge blocks Texas's ban on mask mandates in schools and coronavirus cases are rising in the northern states and the Mountain West. But first:

Employees' insurance costs keep getting worse

The cost of health insurance is – still – steadily rising for the nearly 155 million Americans who get health benefits through their job.

This year, the average annual premiums are over $22,200 for families and $7,700 for individuals — a 4 percent increase from 2020. That’s according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual survey on employer benefits, which has documented a consistent uptick in the cost of health coverage. 

  • For instance: The average premium for family coverage rose 22 percent over the last five years.

This trend line underscores a hard truth about American health care: The system isn’t getting any better. 

Efforts to make health care more affordable have been incremental at best, and experts worry policymakers aren’t addressing the root causes of growing costs. The 2010 Affordable Care Act made significant gains in expanding health coverage, but largely did that by expanding government subsidies rather than lowering the costs of insurance, medicines or medical services.

  • “I think that this data still shows you that over the long term, the system is unsustainable,” said James Gelfand, an executive vice president of the ERISA Industry Committee, which represents large employers.
  • “The biggest No. 1 driver is provider prices, hospital prices, drug prices, the prices of ambulatory services,” said Sabrina Corlette, a co-director at Georgetown University's Center on Health Insurance Reforms. “We just have what is essentially market dysfunction.”

Bob Herman, Axios:

By the numbers

Workers pay a fraction of the total amount of the premium out of their paychecks since employers bear the brunt of the cost. 

  • A family will pay roughly $6,000 this year, while the employer pays for the rest (which is over $16,200).
  • An individual will pay nearly $1,300, while the employer picks up $6,400.

Reality check: Health-care economists argue that it’s all essentially a hidden cost to the employee. If premiums cost less, for instance, then workers’ salaries would be higher, they say.  

  • “I think we lose the fact that this is coming out of the pockets of Americans. It's not some largesse from your employer,” said Craig Garthwaite, a health economist at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Another cost: The vast majority of workers pay a certain amount of money before their insurance plan kicks in to pay for most medical services.

  • The average deductible for single coverage is $1,669, which is similar to last year, though up 68 percent over the past 10 years.
  • The deductible is much higher for those who work for small companies ($2,379) compared with large firms ($1,397).
Pandemic's impact

Insurers actually reaped financial benefits during the pandemic, doubling their profits in the midst of the first coronavirus surge in spring 2020, as people stopped going to the doctor. Yet the coronavirus didn’t appear to sway the cost of employer-based coverage, since premiums rose 4 percent between 2019 and 2020 — the same increase as this year. 

  • “The pandemic made employers, maybe, more conservative than they otherwise might have been about instituting major changes in benefit design or cost structures,” said Corlette, who pointed to the fact that deductibles and employee cost-sharing didn’t dramatically increase.

Instead, some employers beefed up telemedicine and mental health services amid a pandemic that took an unprecedented toll on Americans’ livelihoods.

  • Roughly 16 percent of employers developed new mental health resources, like assistance programs, and 31 percent expanded the way workers could get mental health care, such as through telemedicine.
  • However, only 3 percent bolstered coverage for out-of-network mental health and addiction treatment, and just 6 percent increased the number of providers an enrollee could see.
  • Roughly 19 percent of smaller companies and 35 percent of large firms expanded the services telemedicine covers. And many increased the promotion of these out-of-office visits as many Americans hit pause on seeking care.

The key question is whether employers will keep these services around — or scale them back once the pandemic fades. 

  • “We're gonna want to follow up on how the telemedicine stuff plays out, whether or not there's going to be a little concern about employers about opening the floodgates,” said Gary Claxton, a KFF senior vice president.

Matthew Rae, Kaiser Family Foundation:

In the courts

Federal judge rules against Texas’s ban on school mask mandates

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s prohibition on mask mandates in schools violates the Americans With Disabilities Act, a district judge ruled late Wednesday. The decision could have national implications, since several other states are entangled in similar legal battles.

  • “The ruling from U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel is the latest development in the closely watched feud, as it allows local leaders to once again decide whether they want to implement mask mandates in their school district,” our colleague Reis Thebault writes.
  • Disability Rights Texas — an advocacy group — challenged Abbott’s ban, arguing it discriminates against students with disabilities, particularly those with health conditions putting them at greater risk of severe illness. They’re faced with a tough choice, the group argued: Either stay home or risk exposure at school.

Cue more vaccine mandate lawsuits

But this time, the target is a rule from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Ten states are suing the agency to stop a new regulation mandating staff at 76,000 health facilities get vaccinated by Jan. 4. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Missouri, argues that the rule is overly broad and will further exacerbate a shortage of health-care workers. It follows similar challenges from Republican-led states to the Biden administration's coronavirus mandates for federal workers and private businesses.

Coronavirus

Coronavirus cases are increasing in northern states and the Mountain West

The nationwide decline in coronavirus cases since the summer peak has come to a stop over the past two weeks, as dramatic drops in cases in the Deep South have been offset by increases in the Mountain West and the northern tier of the country, The Post's Carolyn Y. Johnson, Joel Achenbach and Jacqueline Dupree report.

  • The nationwide caseload has ticked up to an average of 76,000 cases a day, after a low of around 69,000 cases in late October.
  • Twenty-three states have seen at least a 5 percent increase in cases over the past two weeks, with Illinois, Minnesota, and Vermont reporting 50 percent more cases on average.

The good news is that hospitalizations and deaths still seem to be declining. But still, the virus is taking more than 1,200 lives a day, as the holidays and cold weather loom.

The big question is whether this is the start of a fifth wave of the pandemic. Infectious-disease experts say a winter surge is unlikely to be as severe as last year. Roughly 194 million Americans are vaccinated, boosters can combat waning immunity and doctors will likely have new drugs to treat covid-19.

The rush to vaccinate kids is ramping up

By the numbers: Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, estimates that roughly 900,000 children ages 5 to 11 have received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. An additional 700,000 appointments have been scheduled at pharmacies.

The appointment crush: Many pediatricians say they are overwhelmed by the demand for shots. A nationwide shortage of nurses, medical assistants and support staffers have complicated logistics, The Post's Marisa Iati and Lindsey Bever report. 

There are some exceptions: Children’s National Hospital in the District has offered more than 15,000 appointments but only booked a few hundred. 

  • And even pediatricians currently overwhelmed with requests expect the rush to die down after those most motivated to get a shot have been vaccinated. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey last month found that 27 percent of parents were eager to get their children vaccinated as soon as possible, while around a third wanted to wait and see.

The Biden administration announces new funds for covid testing, communities

Roughly $785 million will go toward stopping the spread of the coronavirus in communities that have been hardest hit and are at the highest risk from disease — people of color, people with disabilities and people living in rural or low-income areas, The Post’s Akilah Johnson reports. The money builds on billions of dollars that have already been spent on equity-focused programs.

More context: The pandemic hit with unequal impact, as Black, Latino and Native American people were twice as likely to die of covid as White people. However, during this most recent wave of the pandemic, disparities in deaths and infections narrowed for Black and Latino people compared with White people, although this is not the case for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is investing $650 million in rapid, diagnostic testing for the coronavirus. The money will go toward rapid point-of-care molecular tests, which can be used in health-care settings to confirm the results of the less reliable, over-the-counter antigen tests.

Sugar rush

@drleslie

The COVID19 vaccine is now available for kids ages 5 and up!!! Get your spot now!! #LearnOnTiktok #covid19 #vaccine #kids

♬ original sound - RICHARD FRANKS

Thanks for reading! See y'all tomorrow.