Plan Selection in Medicare Part D: Evidence from Administrative Data

By Florian Heiss, Adam Leive, Daniel McFadden, Joachim Winter
The National Bureau of Economic Researchm June 2012

From the NBER Digest:

Fewer than 10 percent of individuals enroll in what for them would be the most cost-effective plans.

In Plan Selection in Medicare Part D: Evidence from Administrative Data (NBER Working Paper No. 18166), co-authors Florian Heiss, Adam Leive, Daniel McFadden, and Joachim Winter analyze data on medical claims in Medicare Part D drug insurance programs. They find that fewer than 10 percent of individuals enroll in what for them would be the most cost-effective plans. This is apparently because seniors pay more attention to their out-of-pocket premiums than to the overall benefits of the dozens of drug plans available to them. Equally significant, the researchers believe that how seniors decide whether to enroll in Medicare Part D, and what plans they select, is important not only for management of the Part D program, but also is indicative of how consumers behave in real-world decision situations with a complex, ambiguous structure and high stakes. The researchers add that their findings may yield predictions for how seniors will handle plan choices in the new general health insurance exchanges that will implement the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

http://www.nber.org/digest/oct12/w18166.html

NBER Working Paper No. 18166 (47 pages):
http://www.nber.org/papers/w18166.pdf

If over 90 percent of purchasers of the Medicare Part D drug plans fail to choose the plans that are best for themselves, then how could we ever expect them to make wise decisions in selecting the best plans from the much more complex plans of the state health insurance exchanges, or, for that matter, from the choice of Medicare Advantage plans or the plan choices to be offered in the proposed premium support (voucher) markets?

The last sentence from “Conclusions” in their paper: “Our results then do not support the proposition that consumers can make and benefit from good choices in private health insurance markets, and direct health care resources to their best use.”

This is really important. Inserting very expensive, profoundly wasteful insurer administrative intermediaries into the system under the guise of choice – choices that cannot be made on a rational basis, choices that are all worse than a single, comprehensive publicly-administered plan would be – is the ultimate of reckless decisions made by the policy community and the politicians that they work for.

Let’s improve Medicare by eliminating the Part D and Medicare Advantage intermediaries and folding an improved version of those benefits into the traditional Medicare program, and then provide it to everyone. It would be cheaper overall and would open up our choices to the choices we really want – that of our health care professionals and institutions. That would be far better than this nonsense of choosing from all the wrong choices.