Did you pick the right health insurance plan?

Selecting a health insurance plan can cause considerable angst for a consumer and his/her family. Insurance plans are complex and there is a wide variety available on the market. Let’s try to simplify the decision making process. There are basically four areas that the consumer needs to assess for each plan offering;

1. The deductible.

2. The co-payment.

3. The co-insurance.

4. Out-of-pocket spending limits.

The complexity of plan choice arises in part from wide variation among plans across these four features that determine how health costs are shared between the insurer and consumer. And so consumers are faced with a dizzying number of permutations when trying to balance these four areas.

Lack of health literacy also plays a part in the process. A study done in 2013 found that only 14% of consumers could answer four simple multiple choice questions regarding the definition of these four cost sharing features. Also when presented with a simplified plan, most respondents were unable to accurately estimate the cost of their medical services. To confuse things further employees need to know if the plan covers their medications (formulary status) and whether their physicians are in or out of network.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) organized plans were segregated into four ‘metal’ tiers – platinum, gold, silver and bronze. One investigation of hypothetical plan choices with plan menus designed to mimic those of the exchanges found that metal labels, rather than facilitating better decisions, worsened choices compared with generic labels (eg, plan A, plan B, plan C). This study also found that alternative plan labels that encouraged consumers to forecast how much care they anticipated needing did have a modestly beneficial effect, suggesting that participants may have misinterpreted metal labels as signals of quality, or the breadth of services covered, rather than the degree of cost sharing.

To make a financially efficient choice, employees, most of whom lack extensive prior experience with insurance, have to carefully consider the complicated relationship between plan cost, cost sharing, and their expected health risk. So what can be done to help employees navigate through these complex scenarios? I would like to suggest some possible solutions;

1. Provide decision aids. These may be scenario based examples or so called “people like me” illustrations.

2. The utilization of consumer historical data (claims, pharmacy etc) to help predict future costs should be encouraged. Prescriptive analytics tools can now help perform this task.

3. A more aggressive approach may be the use of plan “defaults” or restricted menus tailored to each consumer.

4. A more long term solution would be to simplify health insurance – period. Insurance products free of the complex features that consumers are least able to understand, such as deductibles and co-insurance,would more likely help consumers make informed decisions regarding plan choice and utilization.

Offering multiple plans seems like a good idea – the typical ACA enrollee is offered an average of 47 plans. One would hope that this large number of choices would help the consumer find an appropriate plan and may stimulate competition among insurers, leading to improvements in plan price and quality. However, these benefits are unlikely to emerge if consumers are not given the right tools and education.

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