U.S. health spending rose nearly 6%, fastest since 2007

— NEW YORK — As more Americans get health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, spending on health care is rising faster than it has in years.

The United States spent $3.2 trillion on health care in 2015, up 5.8% from the year before, according to new data from the Centers on Medicare and Medicaid Services.

That’s faster than in 2014, when overall health spending rose 5.3%. And it’s the fastest growth rate since 2007.

That $3.2 trillion represents the combined amount spent on health care by all players, including the federal government, individuals, businesses, and state and local governments.

Total U.S. health spending reached nearly $10,000 per person last year, up 5% from the prior year. And as a share of the economy, it rose to 17.8% of GDP, up from 17.4% in 2014.

The increase is largely because of expanded health coverage under the ACA and greater use of health care services, the journal Health Affairs noted in an analysis of the CMS data. In 2013, 86% of the population was insured. By 2015, nearly 91% was.

Overall growth in health expenditures last year was driven largely by money spent on private health insurance (up 7.2%), hospital care (up 5.6%) and physician and clinical services (up 6.3%).

Meanwhile, out-of-pocket costs for individuals (e.g., copays, coinsurance, deductibles and money spent on non-covered services) rose 2.6% to $338.1 billion. That’s up from a 1.4% growth rate in 2014.

For the second year in a row, the dubious award for fastest growth, however, goes to retail prescription drug spending, up 9%. “[That’s] primarily due to increased spending on new medicines, price growth for existing brand-name drugs, increased spending on generics and a decrease in the number of expensive blockbuster drugs whose patents expired,” according to Health Affairs.

The rate of growth in national health care spending had been at record lows from 2009 through 2013, muted by the weak economy and some ACA measures meant to limit expenditures. But it began to grow again in 2014, as more Americans received coverage through the ACA exchanges and Medicaid expansion.

Republicans have long vowed to repeal and replace “Obamacare” as the ACA is known. Now that they will control the White House and both chambers of Congress in January, however, the party appears to be split on just how they’ll go about doing that.

And nearly half of Americans (49%) say they don’t want it repealed.

The best work perk: Getting your evenings and weekends back

— NEW YORK — These days, a lot of companies expect their employees to regularly work more than 40 hours a week. But here’s a radical suggestion: Just stop.

One CEO believes that working excessively long hours is not only unnecessary if everyone manages their time and energy well, it won’t help the company’s bottom line either.

Jason Fried, founder of project management software maker Basecamp, practices what he preaches, rarely logging more than 8-hour days himself and directing his executives and other employees to do the same. His company, with about 50 employees, just celebrated its 17th anniversary.

Now Fried is asking other employers to sign a “Work Can Wait” pledge. Those who do promise to “respect … employees’ nights, weekends and vacations. Stay mindful at work and limit your hours and those of your employees to 40 per week. Model the way for your team.”

The quid pro quo for the employer? “You can create permanent, beneficial change at your company: productivity, creativity, and loyalty will all be up, and talented people will want to work with you.”

One of the companies that has signed on to Fried’s pledge is DragonSearch. The digital marketing firm decided a year ago to stop counting employees’ hours per week but rather let employees manage when they log their 160 hours per month.

That gives them the flexibility to work more or less than 40 hours in a given week depending on what makes sense for their work projects and their personal lives. But in any case they’re not expected to put in more than those 160 hours.

After about six months of the policy being in place, COO Etela Ivkovic noticed employees were coming up with more innovative ideas than they had before and were more willing to tackle projects. Ivkovic thinks that’s directly correlated to the company’s new work-hours policy.

“People feel more balanced. You don’t worry that you missed dinner last night [with your family] or that you haven’t seen your friends in a month. People feel better overall,” she said.

Ivkovic said that clients’ concerns are always addressed, both on weekly calls and on emails. If those emails come in after-hours, “[clients] know we’ll be available the next morning to fix it and make it right. So there isn’t any need for them to freak out,” she said.

In the rare case when a request can’t wait until morning, an employee can shift his hours to a late night or weekend to address it.

Both she and Fried noted that this shift in workplace culture can take time. While there has to be buy-in from leaders, the rank-and-file need to be mindful when they’re impinging on their colleagues’ personal time too.

And none of this works unless everyone is smart about how they work. That means minimizing interruptions and altering expectations that everyone should respond immediately to your questions and requests.

“Just because someone asks you for something doesn’t mean you stop everything,” Fried said. When he sends a request to employees, he expects they’ll get back to him when they’re available.

Unless, of course, something is truly urgent. But, he noted, few things truly are.

“Forty hours a week is plenty if you don’t waste your time. You need to protect people’s time and attention.”

Clinton wants to double the child tax credit

— NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — With just a month to go before the election, Hillary Clinton detailed a new proposal to help limit the burden of child care costs for lower and middle income families.

She wants to double the child tax credit for children under 5 years old.

A credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction of the taxes you owe.

Today low- to upper-middle-income parents may claim up to $1,000 per child under the age of 17. Under Clinton’s plan they could claim up to $2,000 for any children who are infants, toddlers or preschoolers, or $1,000 for those 5 and older.

In addition, Clinton would expand how much of the credit is refundable. That is, when the credit exceeds parents’ taxable income, they can get at least part of it back as a refund. Currently, they can get back 15% of their earnings over $3,000, up to the credit’s full $1,000-per-child value.

Clinton would expand that to 45% when the credit is taken for a child under age 5.

In addition, she would eliminate the $3,000 minimum income requirement for all parents of children under 17. So those who qualify for the refundable portion of the credit could apply the 15% (or 45% for young kids) to all of their earnings.

The idea is to provide very low-income families with a better benefit. Under the current structure, they typically do not receive the full credit, even though they need the most help.

The credit currently phases out for higher income families, and the same would be true under Clinton’s plan, although the campaign didn’t specify the income level.

Today it starts when parents with two kids earn more than $110,000 ($75,000 if single or head of household), according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Once their income hits $150,000 ($115,000 if single or head of household) they would no longer be eligible to claim the credit.

The Tax Policy Center estimates Clinton’s child tax credit expansion would reduce revenue by $209 billion over 10 years.

Part of a broader plan

Previously, Clinton has called for capping the cost of child care at no more than 10% of a family’s income. Her child tax credit expansion would contribute toward that goal.

Over the next decade she also wants to provide universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds.

And she wants to guarantee that parents can take off up to 12 weeks paid at a minimum of two-thirds of a worker’s current wages up to a cap.

As with virtually all her proposals to help the middle class and low-income families, Clinton vows to pay for them by making sure “the wealthy, Wall Street and big corporations pay their fair share.”

Her opponent, Donald Trump, has also put forth a few proposals to make child care more affordable for families. They include allowing parents to deduct the average cost of child care in their state, creating a tax-advantaged dependent care savings account and allowing women whose employers don’t offer paid maternity leave to collect six weeks of unemployment benefits when they have a child.

Free ways to file your taxes

— Filing your tax return is not only time consuming, it can be expensive.

But you may be able to get your taxes done for free. Here’s how:

You make less than $60,000 a year: If your household income is $60,000 or less, you’re eligible for free tax preparation and free e-filing of your federal return. And in some cases you may be allowed to file your state tax return gratis, too.

For federal returns, the IRS has partnered with the Free File Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of 14 leading tax preparation software companies, including H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, TurboTax, Liberty Tax and Tax Slayer.

To make sure you’re getting the brand-name online software for the Free File program, go through the IRS portal.

Some — like H&R Block and Liberty Tax — may even offer you help over the phone or in their offices if you have questions using their programs. Others like Jackson Hewitt will let you to submit a question and get a response within 24 hours.

Each Alliance member applies its own sub-criteria for who qualifies. For instance, some will accept all filers with AGIs of $60,000 or less, while others may only accept those making $53,500 or less. Some also set age requirements or only work with filers in certain states. (Look up the companies’ criteria.)

Be aware, too, that you may be charged a “convenience” fee if you end up owing federal taxes and use a credit card to make your payment.

Also, the “free file” principle may not automatically extend to your state tax return. But Free File Alliance members have struck individual agreements with 20 states and the District of Columbia that do allow for free filing. (See if your state is among them.)

There’s another way to get your taxes done for free if you make less than $60,000.

The IRS runs both a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA) and a Tax Counseling for the Elderly program (TCE). Offices for both can be found in local-area schools, libraries, shopping centers and other community centers. (Find a VITA or TCE site near you.)

IRS-certified volunteers staff the programs and can help you prepare and e-file your returns. VITA is geared toward anyone making $53,000 or less, the disabled, the elderly and people who don’t speak English fluently. TCE is intended for people 60 and older, who may have tax-specific questions regarding their retirement and pensions.

One example, the New York Food Bank, has one of the largest VITA and TCE programs in the country, with 120 sites across the city.

You’re a DIYer: If you make more than $60,000, you also have a free-filing option if you’re willing to forgo the hand-holding of a tax preparer or the paint-by-numbers simplicity of consumer tax software.

You can go old school and do your own taxes — either on paper or online, filling out the e-file forms that the IRS — and in many cases states — provide online. But you have to be willing to do the legwork and you should have a strong handle on your tax situation.

Whatever your income, however, it would be a costly mistake not to file if you know you’ll owe money since the IRS will hit you with a steep failure-to-file penalty.

The good news, though, most Americans — especially those making $60,000 or less — typically get a refund.

How much are you paying to get your taxes done this year? Let us know here for a future story. Your name and comments will not be published without your permission.


™ & © 2015 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

IRS: Claim this refund now or you’re out of luck

— The IRS has $1 billion in unclaimed refunds for the 2011 tax year that will soon become the property of the U.S. government if taxpayers don’t come forward to claim them.

Roughly 1 million households that didn’t file a 2011 tax return are owed that money, the IRS said Wednesday.

By law, taxpayers only have three years to claim their refunds. So if they don’t file their 2011 federal returns by April 15 of this year, the Treasury gets to keep the money.

“People could be missing out on a substantial refund, especially students or part-time workers. Some people may not have filed because they didn’t make much money, but they may still be entitled to a refund,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said in a statement.

Here’s what he means: Low- and moderate income workers may be eligible to claim so-called refundable credits – those that pay you money even if you have zero income tax liability.

One example: The Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC, which is worth up to $5,751 for 2011, depending on family size.

About half of the outstanding refunds are worth more than $698, the agency said.

Among states, the IRS estimates that residents of Texas, California, Florida and New York have the most in federal refunds outstanding.


™ & © 2015 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.