The Folly of High Deductible Health Plans

January 21, 2015
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value-based pricing!

Now that’s what I call value-based pricing!

value-based pricing!

Now that’s what I call value-based pricing!

They used to call high deductible health plans “consumer-directed” plans. That was before people realized there is nothing particularly consumer driven about them. A recent poll –not the first of its kind– shows that people with high deductible plans tend to forego care. In fact they skip both unneeded and needed care. Most people don’t like the plans so much when they get sick.

Naturally the current negativity about high deductible plans is mixed up with discussion of the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare. The lowest tier Bronze plans have cheap premiums but high deductibles. This very typical article on the subject (Skipped Care A Side Effect Of High-Deductible Health Plans) from the Seattle Times comes complete with the requisite Republican representative trashing ObamaCare. What this article and almost all similar ones miss is that low income people should purchase Silver tier plans. Not only will they receive valuable premium subsidies, they’ll also be eligible for cost-sharing subsidies that reduce out-of-pocket costs, thus neutralizing the usual criticism of ObamaCare. (By the way, details like this are why the law has a lot of pages in it.)

In the private sector things are different and worse. Employers that offer high-deductible plans are effectively penalizing their low wage employees and rewarding those with high incomes. That’s because those with limited incomes are more sensitive to the high out of pocket costs. They’ll self-ration and hold overall medical expenses down. Meanwhile, high wage employees won’t be nearly so affected. High income people I know who have high deductible plans just don’t think hard about avoiding the out-of-pocket payments. Their premiums will be lower than they should be because utilization is held down among the lower wage folks on the same plan.

Meanwhile, the high deductible plans are totally ineffective at cost containment once the relatively low out-of-pocket maximums are reached. For example, anyone having even minor surgery will blow right through the maximums and have no incentive to keep a lid on costs after that.

A better approach would be to offer policies that reward patients for using efficient providers and provide a premium rebate to those who do.

photo: theamericanroadside / photopin cc