I’ve put my family on a health insurance experiment. It’s been a challenge
By Ashish Jha
STAT, February 6, 2017
Enrollment in high-deductible health insurance plans has exploded over the past five years. I’m learning the hard way how these plans do — and do not — work.
About one-third of American workers covered by health insurance are now in high-deductible health plans, in which the policy holder pays a substantial portion of the cost of health care services out of pocket before insurance coverage kicks in. Many economists and health policy experts believe that these plans are a promising way to reduce health care spending.
So when a high-deductible plan became available through my employer, Harvard University, a couple years ago, I decided to enroll my family in it. If this is going to be a big national experiment, I thought that I, as a physician and a health policy scholar, ought to know what it’s like to live with this kind of health insurance. Debra, my wife, was not convinced.
My family is now in its second year under a high-deductible plan. That means we are responsible for paying the first $6,000 of our health expenses for the year, for everything from a doctor visit for a flu shot to surgery.
It has been an educational enterprise.
Our experiment is showing me again and again that it’s extremely hard to be a health care consumer in Massachusetts — just as I’m sure it is in other states. Want to know how much a particular type of health care costs, like a visit to a specialist or getting a minor surgery? Good luck figuring it out. My insurance company’s online tool was hard to use and, even as a physician, I could almost never guess what sets of services a visit to the doctor might generate.
The second lesson was that being a health care consumer is stressful, at least the way the system is currently set up. Here’s an example. Our son had surgery last year. We got a call saying it was time for his one-year follow-up. Deb stressed for nearly two months over whether or not to make the appointment. Of course she wants our son to get the care he needs, but did he truly need this follow-up? That’s both the promise and the peril of high-deductible plans — they are supposed to make you think twice about consuming health care.
She eventually went with our son for his one-year follow-up — they spent two minutes with the surgeon — and paid $465 for the visit. I’m not sure my son, or my spouse, felt any better afterward. There were many examples like this sprinkled throughout the year, but the most profound one was the one I experienced for myself.
I have supraventricular tachycardia, a common heart rhythm problem. When it hits, my heart races at about 180 beats per minute. It comes on a couple of times a year, lasts a few minutes, and usually isn’t a big deal. But one morning I woke up with my heart racing. After 30 minutes, I wondered if I should go to the emergency department, knowing that I’d probably get stuck with a multi-thousand-dollar bill. So I kept waiting. After an hour, during which my heart kept beating furiously, my chest started to hurt. I knew what that meant — I was at risk of having a heart attack.
Deb asked me what I would tell a patient in this situation. That was easy: I’d tell him or her to call 911. But I kept waiting. Finally, about 15 minutes later, the abnormal rhythm finally broke and I felt my heart calm down. I was lucky — I had rolled the dice and things had worked out.
If we continue with high-deductible health plans the way they exist today, more and more people will experience what my family did — the stress of having to make medical decisions with little information and few choices. At best, we’ll have a health care system that might save a little money — but at the risk of harming the health of our citizens.
Ashish Jha, MD, is an internist at the VA Boston Healthcare System, and a professor of health policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
By Don McCanne, M.D.
There are two potential adverse consequences of requiring high deductibles in health insurance plans. Developing a serious medical problem can expose the individual to financial hardship. Even more serious is that the potential for financial exposure can cause an individual to make a terribly consequential decision in electing to forgo medical care because of the deductible.
Some say that we merely need to provide the patients with adequate information and then patients can make their own informed decisions. That is a fundamental principle in consumer-driven health care. But the rhetoric does not match the real world.
In this instance, a noted physician and professor of health policy, Ashish Jha, made a decision to protect his personal finances even though that decision could have cost him his life! As an optimally informed patient-consumer, he made the wrong decision, even though fortunately he escaped the worst consequences.
Several other nations that cover everyone at a cost much lower than ours are able to provide care with first dollar coverage – no need to use high deductibles in a misguided effort to contain spending. Surely the United States could do the same.