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Editor's Note
March 2016

High-Deductible Health Plans and Higher-Value Decisions: A Mirage or Are We Just Not There Yet?

JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(3):397-398. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.7559

High-deductible health plans—insurance plans that have lower premiums but higher deductibles than traditional health plans—have been increasingly promoted as a means to incentivize higher-value health care decision making. However, we have little information on how individuals take accessibility, cost, and quality information into account when making health care decisions. Moreover, there remains uncertainty about whether individuals will obtain recommended health care services while at risk for greater out-of-pocket costs.1,2

In this issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, Sinaiko and colleagues3 conduct an internet-based survey of enrollees in high-deductible health plans and traditional health plans to better understand how they think about health care decisions. Individuals enrolled in plans with different financial incentives actually share many of the same beliefs about health care pricing and how to obtain high-quality care. Both rarely consider obtaining care from a different health care professional and even less often compare costs among health care professionals. Despite the limitations of an internet-based sample and few questions to disentangle the nuance of decision making, an interpretation of this study could be that high-deductible health plans are rationally designed for individuals who do not yet have access to sufficient information to make higher-value decisions in today’s market, suggesting that these plans have not yet succeeded at making cost and quality information more available and more actionable for their enrollees. However, a more likely interpretation is that getting enrollees to make higher-value decisions remains a mirage. High-deductible health plans take advantage of an irrationally designed health care system. In fact, information about our health care system is asymmetric in that it is better understood by physicians and less so by patients, which means patients obtaining care are not truly informed decision makers.

It is true that high-deductible health plan enrollees have “skin in the game.” However, these enrollees are exposed to substantial out-of-pocket cost risk with little evidence that this risk exposure will incentivize higher-value health care decisions, meaning they are essentially playing the game blindfolded with one hand tied behind their back.

Newhouse  JP.  Free For All?: Lessons From the RAND Health Insurance Experiment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1996.
Ross  JS, Bradley  EH, Busch  SH.  Use of health care services by lower-income and higher-income uninsured adults.  JAMA. 2006;295(17):2027-2036.PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Sinaiko  AD, Mehrotra  A, Sood  N.  Cost-sharing obligations, high-deductible health plan growth, and shopping for health care: enrollees with skin in the game [published online January 19, 2016].  JAMA Intern Med. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.7554.Google Scholar