High deductibles do not increase patient price shopping

Cost-Sharing Obligations, High-Deductible Health Plan Growth, and Shopping for Health Care

By Anna D. Sinaiko, PhD; Ateev Mehrotra, MD; Neeraj Sood, PhD
JAMA Internal Medicine, January 19, 2016

The rapid growth of high-deductible health plans (HDHP) has been driven in part owing to a belief that cost-sharing obligations (ie, having skin in the game) will encourage health insurance enrollees to shop for health care. The wide variation in costs across physicians and hospitals implies considerable opportunity for enrollees to save money by switching to lower-cost providers. High-deductible health plan enrollment is associated with lower health care spending. However, prior studies using health insurance claims data indicate these savings are primarily owing to decreased use of care and not because HDHP enrollees are switching to lower-cost providers. Limited prior work has assessed attitudes toward price shopping among HDHP enrollees and whether they were more likely to consider costs when seeking care.

From Methods

We surveyed a nationally representative sample of insured US adults between 18 and 64 years of age who used medical care in the last year and compared HDHP enrollees with people in traditional plans on rates of shopping for care. The definition of an HDHP was established as a health plan having an individual deductible greater than $1250 or a family deductible greater than $25006 or a health plan that included a health savings account.

From Results

During their last use of medical care, HDHP enrollees were no more likely than enrollees in traditional plans to consider going to another health care professional for their care (n = 120 [10.9%] vs n = 85 [10.0%]; P = .67), or to compare out-of-pocket cost differences across health care professionals (n = 42 [3.8%] vs n = 23 [2.7%]; P = .37).

From Discussion

Simply increasing a deductible, which gives enrollees skin in the game, appears insufficient to facilitate price shopping. Members of HDHP and traditional plans are equally likely to price shop for medical care, and they hold similar attitudes about health care prices and quality.

Editor’s Note

High-Deductible Health Plans and Higher-Value Decisions

By Joseph S. Ross, MD, MHS

High-deductible health plans — insurance plans that have lower premiums but higher deductibles than traditional health plans — have been increasingly promoted as a means to incentivize higher-value health care decision making. However, we have little information on how individuals take accessibility, cost, and quality information into account when making health care decisions. Moreover, there remains uncertainty about whether individuals will obtain recommended health care services while at risk for greater out-of-pocket costs.

In this issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, Sinaiko and colleagues conduct an internet-based survey of enrollees in high-deductible health plans and traditional health plans to better understand how they think about health care decisions. Individuals enrolled in plans with different financial incentives actually share many of the same beliefs about health care pricing and how to obtain high-quality care. Both rarely consider obtaining care from a different health care professional and even less often compare costs among health care professionals. Despite the limitations of an internet-based sample and few questions to disentangle the nuance of decision making, an interpretation of this study could be that high-deductible health plans are rationally designed for individuals who do not yet have access to sufficient information to make higher-value decisions in today’s market, suggesting that these plans have not yet succeeded at making cost and quality information more available and more actionable for their enrollees. However, a more likely interpretation is that getting enrollees to make higher-value decisions remains a mirage. High-deductible health plans take advantage of an irrationally designed health care system. In fact, information about our health care system is asymmetric in that it is better understood by physicians and less so by patients, which means patients obtaining care are not truly informed decision makers.

It is true that high-deductible health plan enrollees have “skin in the game.” However, these enrollees are exposed to substantial out-of-pocket cost risk with little evidence that this risk exposure will incentivize higher-value health care decisions, meaning they are essentially playing the game blindfolded with one hand tied behind their back.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

This study shows that individuals with high-deductible health plans (HDHP) are no more likely to select their care based on their out-of-pocket costs than do individuals enrolled in traditional health plans without high deductibles. As the editorial states, it is likely that “getting enrollees to make higher-value decisions remains a mirage.”

So high deductibles do not cause patients to be smart shoppers, but they do cause patients to decline beneficial health care services. They also create financial hardships for some patients. Thus high deductibles have a net negative impact. We should get rid of them. A single payer system is a much more efficient and patient-friendly method of controlling health care spending.