Like at many other institutions, I expect to see significant increases in my health insurance costs purchased through my employer in 2011. I have often advocated for high deductible plans -- catastrophic coverage, essentially -- as a good direction to go in health insurance. Such plans would potentially:
-- Make consumers internalize the true cost of health care and make efficient decisions concerning purchases
-- Create conditions for more price transparency. I expect that more consumers would start asking their providers what procedures will cost.
-- Make consumers realize that much of the problem with health care cost is not with the insurance companies but with high prices from providers.
Unfortunately the path to high deductible plans that would lead to such effects is not easy. There are a lot of behavioral and institutional issues that need to be corrected, and at least one major tax issue. Let me elaborate a bit by using Dartmouth's prices for insurance as an example.
My choices in health insurance are three-fold: a "high" deductible indemnity plan, a "zero" deductible PPO (preferred provider organization) plan, and a "zero" deductible POS (point of service) plan. I put quotes around the deductible amounts since they are fuzzy -- depending on what kind of provider you use, the deductible might or might not apply.
But let's try to keep it easy and focus on the two plans I paid attention to. The indemnity plan has a $3000 per year family deductible, while the PPO plan has a $750 family deductible so long as I stay in the network of preferred providers, which I normally would do. The PPO deductible only applies to some things, like hospital stays, outpatient services, physician services. Routine exams and things like xrays are either covered in full or for a nominal amount ($15).
The high deductible indemnity plan would cost $19,800 per year while the low deductible PPO costs $18,635. Thanks to misguided tax policy, all of this is paid for with pre-tax dollars.
Already you can see how tough this choice is going to be. This is not like comparing what kind of beer to buy, for sure. Not even like auto or home insurance.
But let's try to cut to the chase. If I buy the high deductible plan, I save $1165 per year. For that, I risk paying an additional $2250 or even $3000 in my own health costs. If I can put money into a health savings account, then I can keep the comparison in pretax dollars, but the problem with our health savings account is that if I don't use all the money in a year, I lose it. So I have to estimate what I will spend, and put only that much in. If I underestimate, then I will end up paying the deductible with post-tax dollars, which really hurts.
So if I expect my health care costs to be less than $1165 for the year, I would be better off with the high deductible plan -- the savings in plan price exceeds what I will pay out of pocket for costs. (I am assuming here that the effective deductible on the PPO plan is zero, as most of my expenses are in the zero deductible category.) More than $1165, and I should take the low deductible plan. And in doing these calculations, I should anticipate that my pattern of health care consumption should be different depending on what plan I have (since in one plan I pay for each service and in the other plan I do not).
This is a tough call. The biggest problem for me is that there is simply not much to be gained one way or the other. The dollar amounts are just not that large. And then there are other differences that our dear benefits providers have thrown in to make the choice even more complicated: the plans differ in mental health services, eye care, drug coverage, and even reimbursement for health care membership.
Faced with the choice, most people, I believe, opt for the PPO plan. Yes, it costs a bit more, but it is easy to understand. I think the College probably feels this is good, that most people opt for the PPO, as it discriminates against out-of-network providers. So employees use the low-cost preferred providers.
The problem of course is that now I have a zero deductible on all kinds of services and a low deductible on a lot of other things. So many consumers get into a situation where the marginal price of health care for them is zero. That causes consumption of services to be too high, and creates a situation where consumers don't know what things cost. Not even doctors and hospitals know what things cost, because nobody has an incentive to ask. And, consumers, when they see increases each year in their health care plans, blame the only entity for which they see a meaningful price that they pay -- in this case, Anthem. (Interesting, the payment for a doctor visit under the PPO plan is $15, probably leading many consumers to think that doctor's can't be charging too much!)
In my opinion, the design and pricing of these plans is very poor. If they are designed to get folks into a PPO so they select in-network providers, that can be accomplished another way. What they plans are not doing is getting people to take high deductible plans and have proper incentives.
Could better plans be designed? Of course. In my next post, I will work out some more details. However, the key elements are going to be: First, there has to be a really high deductible plan, something in the $5,000 range. Otherwise there just won't be enough potential savings to play around with. Second, with such a high deductible, the medical reimbursement account will have to have a corresponding high limit, and, CRITICALLY, the "use it or lose it" aspect will have to disappear. If you put $5,000 into an account for medical costs, and use only $1,000, then next year you should be able to roll that entire amount forward. Essentially we should be able to self-insure our medical expenses with pretax dollars over time.
Next post will take some imaginary data and play around with a couple plans that could get a larger portion of employees into a high-deductible plan.