Do Premiums Count Toward Your Deductible?

I recently heard a rant from a frustrated health insurance newbie. He said he had already paid more than his annual health insurance deductible amount in monthly premiums this year, but his health insurance still wasn’t paying for his doctor’s office visits. When he called his health plan to find out why they weren’t paying, he was told that he hadn’t reached his deductible yet.

He thought the premium payments he was making each month should be credited toward his annual deductible. Unfortunately, health insurance doesn’t work that way; premiums don’t count toward your deductible.

Illustration of young patient talking to doctor
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If Premiums Don’t Count Toward Your Deductible, Then What Are They For?

Health insurance premiums are the cost of the health insurance policy. It’s what you pay the health insurance company (or employer, if your employer provides a self-insured health plan) in exchange for the insurer’s agreement to shoulder part of the financial risk of your healthcare costs that month.

But, even when you pay your health insurance premiums, your health insurance doesn’t pay 100% of the cost of your health care. You share the cost of your healthcare expenses with your insurer when you pay deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance, together known as cost-sharing expenses. Your health insurance company pays the rest of your healthcare costs, as long as you’ve followed the health plan’s managed care rules (ie, prior authorization, using in-network medical providers, step-therapy requirements, etc.).

Cost-sharing allows health insurance companies to sell health insurance policies with more affordable premiums because:

  • If you have some "skin in the game", you’ll avoid getting care you don’t really need. For example, you won’t go to the doctor for every little thing if you have to pay a $50 copayment each time you see the doctor. Instead, you’ll only go when you really need to (on the flip side, the problem with cost-sharing is that people may also avoid necessary care due to the cost, and there is an ongoing debate about whether it might be better to eliminate cost-sharing and fully cover costs with premiums and/or taxes instead).
  • The financial risk the insurer faces is lowered by the amount of the cost-sharing you have to pay. Every dollar you pay towards your deductible, copayments, and coinsurance when you receive health care is one less dollar your health insurance company has to pay. 

Without cost-sharing like deductibles, health insurance premiums would be even higher than they are now.

What’s Your Financial Risk? What Will You Owe?

When you’re insured, the description of cost-sharing in your health insurance policy's Summary of Benefits & Coverage tells how much of your medical costs you pay and how much your health insurance company pays. It should spell out clearly how much your deductible is, how much your copays are, and how much your coinsurance is (coinsurance will be stated as a percentage of the claims, so the dollar amount will vary depending on how large the claim is).

In addition, your health plan’s out-of-pocket limit should be clearly stated in your policy or Summary of Benefits & Coverage. In 2021, the out-of-pocket limit can't exceed $8,550 for a single person or $17,100 for a family, unless you have a grandmothered or grandfathered health plan (note that the federal limit only applies to in-network treatment for essential health benefits). These upper limits on out-of-pocket costs generally increase from one year to the next. Many plans are available with out-of-pocket limits below these upper maximums, but they cannot exceed the federal limits.

(Note that Medicare is different: Original Medicare does not have a cap on out-of-pocket costs, although most beneficiaries have supplemental coverage that covers some or all of the out-of-pocket costs; Medicare Advantage plans cannot have out-of-pocket limits in excess of $7,550 in 2021, although that does not include costs for medications.)

The out-of-pocket limit protects you from unlimited financial losses in case of really high healthcare expenses. After you’ve paid enough in deductibles, copays, and coinsurance to have reached your out-of-pocket maximum for the year, your health plan begins to cover 100% of the cost of your in-network, medically necessary care for the rest of the year. You don’t have to pay any more cost-sharing that year. However, you still have to pay your monthly premiums or your health insurance policy will be canceled.

So, what’s the least you could owe, and what’s the most you could owe? You’d owe the least if you didn’t need any health care all year long. In this case, you wouldn’t have any cost-sharing expenses. All you would owe is your monthly premiums. Take your monthly premium cost and multiply it by 12 months to find your total annual spending for health insurance.

You would owe the most if you have really high healthcare expenses because you either needed care frequently or you had one really expensive episode of care, like needing surgery. In this case, the most you’ll owe in cost-sharing is your policy’s out-of-pocket maximum. Add your out-of-pocket maximum to the cost of your premiums for the year, and that should define the upper limit to what you might owe for covered healthcare expenses that year.

Beware, though. Not all healthcare expenses are covered. For example, some types of health insurance won’t pay for care unless you get it from an in-network medical provider (and if your health plan does cover out-of-network care, you'll have a higher deductible and out-of-pocket exposure for out-of-network services). Most health insurers won’t pay for services that aren’t medically necessary. Some health plans won’t pay for certain types of care unless you’ve gotten ​prior authorization for it.​​​​

Who Pays the Premium for Your Health Insurance Policy?

The premium is the cost of purchasing insurance, regardless of whether you use the plan or not. But in most cases, the people insured by the policy don't have to pay the full premiums themselves. About half of Americans get their health insurance via a job-sponsored plan, either as an employee, or as a spouse or dependent of an employee.

According to a 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation employer benefits survey, employers pay an average of nearly 74% of total family premiums for employees who have job-sponsored health insurance. Of course, it can be argued that the employer premium contributions are simply part of the employee's compensation, which is true. But economists doubt that employees would simply receive all of that money in additional wages if employer-sponsored health insurance were to be ​eliminated, because health insurance is a tax-advantaged part of an employer's compensation package

Among people who purchase their own health insurance in the individual market, plans are available through the ACA exchanges and off-exchange. Of the people who buy coverage through the exchanges, 86% were receiving premium tax credits (subsidies) in 2020 to offset a portion of their premiums. Across all states, the average pre-subsidy premium was $575/month in 2020. But for the 86% of enrollees who were receiving premium subsidies, the average subsidy amount was $491/month, leaving the enrollees with an average after-subsidy premium of just $84/month.

And the subsidies are larger and more widely available in 2021, thanks to the American Rescue Plan. The "subsidy cliff" has been temporarily eliminated, which means subsidy eligibility no longer ends abruptly when a household's income exceeds 400% of the poverty level. And for households with lower incomes, subsidy amounts have increased in order to make coverage more affordable than it was before. People who are receiving unemployment compensation in 2021 are eligible for full cost-sharing reductions and premium subsidies substantial enough to result in $0 premiums for the two lowest-cost Silver plans. All of this helps to make coverage more affordable and accessible as the country recovers from the COVID pandemic.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; HHS Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2021; Notice Requirement for Non-Federal Governmental Plan. May 14, 2020.

  2. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Kathryn A. Coleman Director. Final Contract Year 2021 Part C Benefits Review and Evaluation. April 8, 2020.

  3. Kaiser Family Foundation. Health Insurance Coverage of the Total Population. 2019.

  4. Kaiser Family Foundation. 2020 Employer Health Benefits Survey. October 8, 2020.

  5. US Department of Health and Human Services. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Effectuated Enrollment for the First Half of 2020. September, 2020.

  6. Norris, Louise. Five Ways the American Rescue Plan Might Slash Your Health Insurance Costs. March 18, 2021.