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Health Policy
July 17, 2020

High-Deductible Health Plans and Health Savings Accounts: A Match Made in Heaven but Not for This Irrational World

Author Affiliations
  • 1Durham Center of Innovation to Accelerate Discovery and Practice Transformation, Durham Veterans Affairs Health Care System, Durham, North Carolina
  • 2Department of Population Health Sciences, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, North Carolina
  • 3Division of General Internal Medicine, Department of Medicine, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, North Carolina
  • 4Duke Clinical Research Institute, Durham, North Carolina
JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(7):e2011000. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.11000

In JAMA Network Open, a study by Kullgren and colleagues1 fills a gap in our understanding of health savings account (HSA) use in the context of high-deductible health plans (HDHPs). Proponents for HDHPs argue that these plans can help bend the cost curve in the insured population because premiums are lower than in health plans with lower cost-sharing. In addition, it is argued that HDHP enrollees will be more price-sensitive consumers of health care because they must pay for the full cost of qualified health care services until they reach the deductible limit (a mean deductible of $5316 in 2020 Health Insurance Exchange plans).2 Enrollees in HDHPs are offered HSAs to have the option of contributing pretax income to an account specifically used to cover the high cost-sharing of HDHPs, and HSA balances can accrue over time because they are not subject to the “use it or lose it” provision of flexible spending accounts. High-deductible health plans have the potential to realize these goals if enrollees participate in an HSA (when offered it) and make contributions equal to their expected out-of-pocket spending.

This study by Kullgren and colleagues1 makes an important contribution to the existing literature by examining the proportion of HDHP enrollees who had an HSA, the proportion with an HSA who contributed money into it in the prior year, and patient factors associated with uptake and savings decisions. They addressed these questions using data obtained from an online survey fielded to a nationally representative panel of 1637 respondents from 2016. They found that a low proportion of HDHP enrollees were using HSAs to save for health care expenses, and a majority with an HSA saved no money in it. Specifically, 32.5% of HDHP enrollees did not have an HSA, and 55.0% of HDHP enrollees with an HSA did not contribute any (pretax) funds to their account in the prior 12 months.1 There was no difference in HSA enrollment or contributions between patients with or without chronic conditions.

These findings are concerning given that the proportion of employers offering HDHPs has increased dramatically in the past 15 years. From 2005 to 2019, the proportion of employers offering an HDHP with a saving option increased from 4% to 28%.3 For HDHPs to realize the goals of motivating patients to shop around for health care, increasing their price sensitivity and minimizing the chance that they forego necessary care, a high proportion of HDHP enrollees must enroll in an HSA and contribute sufficient funds to meet their out-of-pocket expenses. However, the study by Kullgren et al1 showed that a sizable proportion of HDHP enrollees did not enroll in an HSA or contribute to it if they had an HSA. These results by Kullgren and colleagues1 may help to explain why HDHP enrollees in another survey-based study4 were not more likely to compare out-of-pocket cost differences across health care professionals than non-HDHP enrollees.

As a result, HDHPs seem to be shifting a substantial amount of risk from employers to employees. This is particularly concerning for low-income families who may not have discretionary income to contribute to an HSA. Kullgren and colleagues1 found that higher-income respondents (ie, 250%-400% of the federal poverty level) were more likely to enroll in an HSA than lower-income respondents (<250% of the federal poverty level).1 These enrollment differences may create a greater financial burden of out-of-pocket health care costs on lower-income families, but this study did not address that possibility. However, a recent study of low-income adults with multiple chronic conditions enrolled in employer-sponsored insurance found that almost half had a family out-of-pocket health care burden exceeding 20% of family disposable income, which was considerably higher than that of similar low-income adults in low-deductible or no-deductible plans.5 Future work should evaluate the differences in short-term and longer-term delayed care, financial burden, health care spending, and health outcomes in HDHP enrollees with and without an HSA and lower-income and higher-income households to understand the full set of consequences of differential rates of HSA enrollment and savings. Such analyses would complement the important results from the study by Kullgren and colleagues.1

Based on this study, there is room for improvement in HSA enrollment and account contributions among HDHP enrollees. Employers and policy makers may be able to increase HSA enrollment and savings by making the benefits of HSA participation more transparent and understandable, because this study found that HSA enrollees in the highest tertile of health insurance literacy were more likely to contribute to their HSA than those in the lowest tertile.1 Even greater improvements might be realized if employers leveraged the important insight from behavioral economics that default options strongly influence participation rates.6 If HSA enrollment and a monthly contribution at a fixed amount or percentage of income were the default options that employees had to opt out of, future HDHP enrollees may not experience the same outcomes of those in the 2016 sample from this study.

The work by Kullgren et al1 provides important insights about the discordance between HSA use by HDHP enrollees as intended by proponents and HSA use in the real world. More work is needed to make what appears to be a match made in heaven (HDHPs plus HSAs) work as expected in this imperfect real world that is filled with employees who may not be as rational as hoped.

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Article Information

Published: July 17, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.11000

Open Access: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the CC-BY License. © 2020 Maciejewski ML et al. JAMA Network Open.

Corresponding Author: Matthew L. Maciejewski, PhD, Durham Center of Innovation to Accelerate Discovery and Practice Transformation, Durham Veterans Affairs Health Care System, 411 W Chapel Hill St, Ste 600, Durham, NC 27705 (matthew.maciejewski@va.gov).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: Dr Maciejewski reported receiving grant funding from Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Services Research and Development Service (RCS 10-391) and the Durham Center of Innovation to Accelerate Discovery and Practice Transformation (CIN 13-410) at the Durham VA Health Care System outside of the submitted work; receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health outside of the submitted work; and ownership of stock in Amgen, Inc, owing to his spouse’s employment. Dr Hung reported receiving grant funding from the Durham Center of Innovation to Accelerate Discovery and Practice Transformation (CIN 13-410) at the Durham VA Health Care System outside of the submitted work and past employment by Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and CVS Health. No other disclosures were reported.

Disclaimers: The interpretation and reporting of these data are the responsibility of the authors and in no way should be seen as official policy or interpretation of the VA or of Duke University.

Kullgren  JT, Cliff  EQ, Krenz  C,  et al.  Use of health savings accounts among US adults enrolled in high-deductible health plans.   JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(7):e2011014. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.11014Google Scholar
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Health Insurance Exchanges 2020 Open Enrollment Report. Posted April 1, 2020. Accessed May 19, 2020. https://www.cms.gov/files/document/4120-health-insurance-exchanges-2020-open-enrollment-report-final.pdf
Kaiser Family Foundation. 2019 Employer Health Benefits Survey. Published September 25, 2019. Accessed May 19, 2020. https://www.kff.org/health-costs/report/2019-employer-health-benefits-survey/
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.   JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(3):395-397. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.7554 PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Abdus  S, Keenan  PS.  Financial burden of employer-sponsored high-deductible health plans for low-income adults with chronic health conditions.   JAMA Intern Med. 2018;178(12):1706-1708. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.4706 PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Jachimowicz  JM, Duncan  S, Weber  EU, Johnson  EJ.  When and why defaults influence decisions: a meta-analysis of default effects.   Behav Public Policy. 2019;3(2):159-186. doi:10.1017/bpp.2018.43Google ScholarCrossref
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