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Consumer directed health plans don't spur people to shop for better prices

USC study says only one of nine procedures showed price reductions

Consumer directed health plans (CDHPs) that offer low premiums and high deductibles have long been touted as a way to encourage consumers to shop for the best healthcare prices since more of their money is at stake. But that assumption may not be true according to new research from the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics and the RAND Corp.

The study, published last month in the journal Forum for Health Economics & Policy examined consumer behavior of those with and without CDHPs for nine common outpatient services. Of the nine services studied, the researchers found that people with CDHPs only paid less for a doctor's office visit – about 2 percent less – than their traditionally-insured counterparts. All eight other services studied, including chest x-rays and colonoscopies, saw holders of CDHPs and those without CDHPs pay the same amount for services.

“We looked at data from 63 large employers and find little or no evidence that enrolling in a consumer directed health plan encourages price-shopping for health care,” said Neeraj Sood, associate professor at the USC Schaeffer Center and lead author of the report, in a press release.

According to Sood, there were a couple of roadblocks to allowing CDHP holders to affect their individual cost of care: a lack of transparency about the costs of medical treatment makes it difficult to shop around for the best prices and patients are most likely just to receive outpatient services from the providers their primary care physicians recommend.

"People don't question their doctor's advice," Sood noted in the press release, and theorized that one possible solution would be to find a way to provide incentives to referring doctors to help their patients find the most affordable options possible.

Overall, CDHPs do seem to offer a cost savings to patients, he concluded, but only because the high deductibles discourage patients from seeking care. That, however, could ultimately create health problems down the road.

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