Maximize plan design, educate consumers to expand the market for high-deductible health plans

High-deductible health plans may be a better financial option, even for employees with high amounts of health spending, according to a new report, but consumers often lack a complete understanding of their benefit options. 

Educating consumers and maximizing plan design can help payers market these plans to a wider audience.

The National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed 2015 benefit data from 331 firms included in the Kaiser Family Foundation's Employer Health Benefits Survey and found that the high deductibles and out-of-pocket costs associated with high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) are often offset by the lower premiums and employer contributions to a health savings account. 

These plans could save even high healthcare users money, according to the report: Typical savings for HDHP enrollees amounts to $500 a year, even with the increased financial risk. In fact, savings outstripped the increase in out-of-pocket costs at 65% of the firms studied.

But employees still enroll in lower deductible plan options at high rates, even when they could save a substantial amount of money in an HDHP, NBER found.

Part of the problem is that consumers are not fully understanding the potential pros and cons of different benefits options, and they may have a preconceived notion about what they'd get from a high-deductible plan. 

RELATED: High-deductible plans with HSAs could leave the chronically ill vulnerable 

HDHPs are becoming more common, and are viewed as a good option for younger, healthier people who have fewer medical expenses. Employers and payers can offer more clear marketing, such as decision-making aids that outline options more effectively, to draw in more reluctant enrollees, according to the report. 

"It is quite difficult to compare insurance plan options that differ on the basis of premiums, cost-sharing rules and even contributions to health savings and reimbursement accounts," according to the report. 

Firms and the insurers they can contract with should also spend more time on research to ensure plan design maximizes value for enrollees, according to the report. This may mean that employers should begin limiting the options provided to exclude plans that may have limited value. 

RELATED: New bill would mean more flexibility for high-deductible health plans 

Another implication of the findings, according to the report, is that lawmakers focusing on health policy should spend more time looking at the employer-sponsored insurance space. The Affordable Care Act's exchanges were built with the expectation that enrollees with different levels of health need would likely seek out higher or lower deductibles based on their use, so they're grouped into one large risk pool. 

This is not true of employer-sponsored insurance, according to the report, and it warrants another look to determine if a single risk pool is viable in this sphere, as far more people get insurance through their employers than on the exchanges.