New research shows high-deductible health plans on the rise, but there's one major drawback

Health insurance benefits form
In 2016, 15.4% of adults with private, employer-based high-deductible health plans were in families that had problems paying medical bills in the past year, while only 9% of those in traditional plans said the same. (Getty/michaelquirk)

Enrollment in high-deductible health plans is becoming more common for those with employer-based coverage, according to new government research, which also found those with this type of health plan are more likely to face trouble paying for their care.

The new data, detailed in a report (PDF) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show that the share of adults with employer-based coverage who are enrolled in high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) rose from 26.3% in 2011 to 39.3% in 2016.

The CDC’s report defined HDHPs as plans with an annual deductible of at least $1,300 for self-only coverage or $2,600 for family coverage. Compared to traditional plans, which have deductibles below this threshold, premiums for HDHPs tend to be lower.

But that lower premium price tag comes with drawbacks. For example, in 2016, 15.4% of adults with private, employer-based HDHPs were in families that had problems paying medical bills in the past year, while only 9% of those in traditional plans said the same.

And among that same population in 2016, 8.5% of those with an HDHP skipped or delayed medical care due to cost in the past year, compared to the 4.1% with a traditional plan who did so.

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Yet the same pattern did not hold true for those who purchased their coverage directly. The percentage of those individuals who experienced financial barriers to care did not differ by coverage type (either HDHPs or traditional plans) in 2016.

Meanwhile, those who chose an HDHP when purchasing private insurance directly had higher household incomes than those who opted for a traditional plan.

Other research has indicated that while premiums for employer-sponsored health plans are rising slowly, deductibles for such plans have gone up considerably in recent years, raising questions about employees’ ability to handle ever-increasing cost-sharing burdens.