Although much of America remains unemployed and underinsured, parents with employer-sponsored health plans are spending more money on out-of-pocket medical costs for their children — with boys getting more than the girls.

Spending on pediatric health care under those insurance plans rose an average of 5.5 percent per year between 2009 and 2012, according to the nonprofit Health Care Cost Institute. As expected, parents spent more money on infants and toddlers. Average spending on babies reached $4,446 in 2012, with hospitalizations accounting for 40 percent of those out-of-pocket dollars.

"The trend of rising use of prescriptions among children is particularly notable," David Newman, the think-tank’s chief, said in a statement. "We, and others, need to focus on the mental health needs of our children."

Private Health Care Spending Rising
The Health Care Cost Institute on Wednesday reported new data showing private health care costs rose for children between 2009 and 2012. This graph shows a rise in spending for all non-elderly Americans covered by private health insurance. Health Care Cost Institute

Overall, spending per capita on children covered by employer-sponsored plans reached $2,437 in 2012, rising $363 from 2009. Insurers and parents spent more money as doctors prescribed more medications to children, while more teenagers received treatment for mental health and substance abuse problems.

A big gender gap emerged during that period, too. Although girls and women require greater health care spending as teenagers and into late middle age, spending on younger boys outpaced girls by $276 per capita. Whereas spending on health care by insurers reached $2,572 per capita for boys and $2,296 for girls, out-of-pocket spending by parents was also higher for boys than girls at $440 compared to $414.

However, doctors prescribed more medication to girls than boys as overall prescription drug spending rose among all children. Most commonly, children received drugs targeting the central nervous system for the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression. Prescription drug use rose among all children including those ages 4 to 8, as teenage girls downed meds on 128 days per year on average, compared to 89 days for boys. However, drug spending on boys accounted for a greater share of the overall cost, as spending on girls included more generic medications and also cheaper synthetic hormones, such as birth control pills.

Other notable increases in spending included a 47.6 percent jump in 2011 in the meningitis vaccination rate for girls, which was followed immediately by a 16.4 percent rise the next year. Out-of-pocket spending by parents grew by 17 percent across the country, with the greatest cost increases in the South and Midwest.

"We hope this report illustrates where health care spending for children is occurring," researcher Amanda Frost said. "While we know that prices have fueled health care spending growth, this report shows where those dollars are going to help identify implications for children's health and care."

The study analyzed health care spending for 10 million U.S. children covered by private employer-sponsored plans, with another 43 million covered by Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program known as CHIP.