Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Health Plans with High Deductibles More Popular Than Ever but Patients, Hospitals Are Feeling the Effects

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Health Plans with High Deductibles More Popular Than Ever but Patients, Hospitals Are Feeling the Effects

Article excerpt

Employers struggling to pay for workers' health coverage can slow annual spending by about 5 percent by switching to high-deductible health plans, but the burden likely will fall on patients and health care professionals who'll be expected to pick up the slack.

The costs might drive patients to delay care or struggle to come up with a $5,000 deductible, while hospitals ultimately might have to write off any balance due. One Western Pennsylvania hospital has even begun requiring patients having elective surgery to meet first with a finance counselor.

High-deductible plans represent one of the biggest changes in a shifting health care landscape, growing ever more popular based on the belief that patients who bear more responsibility for the final bill will be more responsible about their treatment choices.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers study last year found enrollment in high-deductible plans nationally had tripled since 2009. Locally, 55 percent of responding companies to a Pittsburgh Business Group on Health survey last year said they were offering high-deductible plans, although when presented with options, only about 25 percent of employees chose them.

The appeal for employers is bottom-line direct: It can throttle runaway health care costs, at least at first and particularly if it is paired with a health savings account in which employees can accrue money for when they need medical care.

A recent study by a team headed by Carnegie Mellon University professor Amelia Haviland looked at data on 13 million people working at 54 large U.S. firms offering high deductible, or consumer-directed, plans and found the costs went down each of the first three years, most notably in costs for outpatient care and pharmaceuticals. The effect was most noticeable the first year, and seemed only slightly less so by the third year.

The researchers were looking for evidence of a spike in costs, Ms. Haviland said, which might indicate people were deferring care for financial reasons and then developing more serious illnesses that are more expensive to treat.

While that does not appear to be the case three years out, Ms. …

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