Consumer-directed plans offer short-term benefits

Consumer-directed health plans have the potential to cut costs in the short term, but they may lead to poorer health and higher costs in the long term, according to a study published Monday in the journal Health Affairs.

The study found that consumer-directed health plans, which currently account for 13 percent of all employer-sponsored insurance coverage, would cut healthcare costs by 4 percent--amounting to $57 billion a year--if they represented 50 percent of all employer-sponsored insurance, The Hill's Healthwatch reported.

The plans, which often feature high deductibles, low premiums and health savings accounts, often incentivize consumers to use fewer medical services. However, the study authors questioned whether high-value care, such as preventive screenings and tests, also will fall by the wayside to the detriment of consumers' health, reported the National Journal.

"Consumer-directed health plans can clearly have a significant impact on costs, at least in the short term," study leader Amelia Haviland, a statistician at Carnegie Mellon University and Rand, said. "What we don't yet know is whether the cutbacks in care they trigger could result in poorer health or health emergencies down the road."

Consumers enrolled in these plans had fewer doctor visits and elective hospital admissions and used fewer brand-name drugs than consumers enrolled in traditional plans. However, the decreased medical use eliminated certain recommended services, such as cancer screenings and routine blood sugar tests for diabetes patients, Reuters reported.

"We need to carefully examine whether additional up-front patient costs will diminish the quality of healthcare ... including poorer health and health emergencies down the road," Haviland said.

To learn more:
- read the Health Affairs study
- see the National Journal article
- check out The Hill's Healthwatch article
- read the Reuters article

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