Healthcare Spending and Preventive Care in High-Deductible and Consumer-Directed Health Plans

Enrollment in high-deductible health plans is associated with reduced spending on healthcare and with moderate reductions in the use of preventive care.
Published Online: March 22, 2011
Melinda Beeuwkes Buntin, PhD; Amelia M. Haviland, PhD; Roland McDevitt, PhD; and Neeraj Sood, PhD

Objective: To investigate the effects of highdeductible health plans (HDHPs) and consumerdirected health plans (CDHPs) on healthcare spending and on the use of recommended preventive care.

Study Design: Retrospective study.

Methods: We analyzed claims and enrollment data for 808,707 households from 53 large US employers, 28 of which offered HDHPs or CDHPs. We estimated the effects of HDHP or CDHP enrollment on healthcare cost growth between 2004 and 2005 using a difference-in-difference method that compared cost growth for families who were enrolled in HDHPs or CDHPs for the first time in 2005 with cost growth for families who were not offered HDHPs or CDHPs. Control families were weighted using propensity score weights to match the treatment families. Using similar methods, we examined the effects of HDHP or CDHP enrollment on the use of preventive care and the effects of HDHP or CDHP offering by employers on the mean cost growth.


Results: Families enrolling in HDHPs or CDHPs for the first time spent 14% less than similar families enrolled in conventional plans. Families in firms offering an HDHP or a CDHP spent less than those in other firms. Significant savings for enrollees were realized only for plans with deductibles of at least $1000, and savings decreased with generous employer contributions to healthcare accounts. Enrollment in HDHPs or CDHPs was also associated with moderate reductions in the use of preventive care.


Conclusions: The HDHPs or CDHPs with at least a $1000 deductible significantly reduced healthcare spending, but they also reduced the use of preventive care in the first year. This merits additional study because of concerns about enrollee health.


(Am J Manag Care. 2011;17(3):222-230)

The effect of enrollment in high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) or consumer-directed health plans (CDHPs) on healthcare spending and on the use of preventive care was assessed across multiple employers, insurance carriers, and plans in a 2-year retrospective study.

  • Families enrolling in HDHPs or CDHPs and firms offering HDHPs or CDHPs spent less on healthcare.
  • Significant savings were realized only for enrollees in plans with deductibles of at least $1000, and savings decreased with generous employer contributions to healthcare accounts.
  • Enrollment in HDHPs or CDHPs was associated with moderate reductions in the use of preventive care, despite the fact that these plans waived the deductible for preventive care.
Curbing increases in healthcare costs is a top priority for policy makers and for employers. Many believe that high-deductible health plans (HDHPs), also known as consumer-directed health plans (CDHPs), when coupled with personal savings accounts, might be one way to hold down costs. These plans, intended to make patients more cost conscious, are becoming increasingly popular, and healthcare reform may foster further growth in enrollment. As of 2009, 20% of Americans with employer  coverage were enrolled in a plan with a deductible high enough to be eligible for a health savings account. Among those purchasing coverage directly, 47% had a deductible at least this high.1 A survey of large employers at the beginning of 2010 found that more than 54% offered at least 1 CDHP option, and another 7% were planning in 2011 to adopt one.2 Growth is expected from 2 sources, namely, CDHPs with low premiums offered through health insurance exchanges and more CDHP offerings in the employer market because of taxes placed on generous “Cadillac” plans.

Despite growing enrollment, little is known about the effects of HDHPs or CDHPs on healthcare costs and on the use of necessary care. Even less is known about the influence of specific HDHP or CDHP provisions, including deductible levels and account offerings.3 Both questions are of key importance for those who are newly insured  through exchanges and for those who are selecting plans in the employer or individual market. Part of the problem is the lack of good pre-post data for persons enrolling in diverse HDHP or CDHP and conventional plans. Most evidence is limited to studies with data from a single carrier, a single employer, or a single year; therefore, the findings may not apply outside of those settings. A review of these studies concluded that moving consumers from traditional plans to high-deductible plans could result in significant savings; however, coupling these plans with funded personal accounts could reduce this effect.4 More recent work suggests that some CDHP plan designs might lead to higher spending over time, to discontinuation of chronic disease medications by patients, and to decreased use of office visits, hospitalizations, and emergency department care.5-8 Other peer-reviewed studies9-11 have found instances in which CDHP enrollment has no discernible effect on the use of preventive care. Reviewing a set of industry studies, the American Academy of Actuaries12 concluded that CDHP plans saved 12% to 20% in their first year compared with control plans, with no evidence that this was due to a reduction in necessary care.

This study is the first to date to use longitudinal data from a diverse set of carriers, employers, and HDHP or CDHP designs to investigate the first year effects on healthcare spending and on the use of preventive care. It also is the first study to examine the differential effects on these outcome measures of deductible levels, personal accounts, and employer account contributions.


Study Design

We constructed a unique data set that included 2 years of enrollment and healthcare claims information for employees of 53 large US employers, 28 of which offered HDHPs or CDHPs to their employees. These employers offered health plans from all major and many smaller US insurance carriers. We defined a high deductible as $500 or more for single coverage and $1000 or more for family coverage in 2005, resulting in plans with a range of deductible levels and account provisions.

We estimated the differences between HDHP or CDHP and non–HDHP or CDHP enrollees using a difference-indifference propensity score–weighted method. We compared the 2004 to 2005 change in healthcare costs for families who first enrolled in HDHPs or CDHPs in 2005 (treatment families) with the change in healthcare costs for families who remained in conventional plans (control families). Therefore, the analysis controls for all time-invariant differences across treatment and control families such as inherent propensity to use healthcare or trust in physicians and modern healthcare. However, our results might be confounded if treatment and control families had different cost growth trajectories. To address this, we took 3 additional steps. First, we only included families as controls if they were not offered an HDHP or a CDHP. Those who were offered and declined an HDHP or a CDHP were excluded from the analysis. Second, we used propensity score weights to produce a control group similar to the treatment group based on a rich set of observed characteristics, including family type, geocoded income and educational levels, presence of major diagnoses, actuarial value of the health plan before enrollment, and industry of employment.13,14 Third, to account for residual confounding, we used these observed characteristics as covariates in multivariate regression models.

We also conducted an intent-to-treat analysis to estimate the effects on healthcare cost growth of the employer decision to offer HDHPs or CDHPs. Using difference-in-difference methods, we compared the 2004 to 2005 healthcare cost increases for employers who offered HDHPs or CDHPs in 2005 versus for employers who did not. We also estimated separate effects among employers who completely replaced their conventional plans with HDHPs or CDHPs.

Data Sources and Study Population

The study population consisted of active full-time employees and their dependents who were continuously enrolled for 2 full plan-years. A small proportion (0.4%) were dropped because of errors or omissions in their claims data. A slightly larger proportion (3.1%) were dropped because of errors in their enrollment information. This resulted in 808,707 families for analysis related to the effects of HDHP or CDHP enrollment and 981,973 families for analysis related to the effects of HDHP or CDHP offer.

The employers entered the study from 2 routes. One group of employers was recruited because they offered an HDHP or a CDHP during the period from 2003 to 2007. These employers were selected to encompass a range of geographic regions, employee income levels, proportion of employees enrolling in HDHPs or CDHPs, and HDHP or CDHP characteristics. The other group of employers was from the Thomson Reuters (New York, New York) MarketScan database. These employers were selected to match the geographic, size, and industry distribution of the recruited employers. In the 2004-2005 cohort used for this analysis, employers from both sources  contributed to the treatment and control samples (83% of HDHP or CDHP–enrolled families are from recruited firms). The enrollment and claims data from insurers were  standardized into a modified MarketScan format. An expert independent of the study organizations certified that the analysis data files received by the research team were deidentified, and the Human Subjects Protection Committee at RAND Corporation approved the study.

Study Variables

Families are the unit of analysis, with additional variables indicating a single employee, employee plus spouse, and additional tiers. For the effect of HDHP or CDHP enrollment analysis, treatment families were those who first enrolled in an HDHP or a CDHP in 2005. For the effect of HDHP or CDHP offer analysis, the treatment families included all insured families in firms that first offered an HDHP or a CDHP in 2005. In both cases, the treatment group was restricted to those who worked for employers where at least 3% of employees enrolled in an HDHP or a CDHP. Control families worked for employers that did not offer high-deductible plans.

High-deductible health plans are classified into the following 4 types by individual deductible and by employer contribution to personal medical accounts: (1) moderate deductible ($500-$999), (2) high deductible (>$1000) with no account, (3) high deductible with low employer account contribution of less than $500, and (4) high deductible  with generous employer account contribution of at least $500 (the last 2 are also known as CDHPs); the types represented 44%, 11%, 33%, and 13% of the treatment sample, respectively. Almost all of these high-deductible plans waived the deductible for preventive care, as established by employer survey and interview data.

We derived plan cost-sharing provisions for all plans based on payment patterns in the claims data combined with employer survey data if available. We included in our analysis only plans with at least 100 employees to ensure sufficient observations to make reliable estimates of the deductible, which is used to assign treatment status. We validated our claimsbased cost-sharing provisions by comparing them with survey responses from 27 employers about 138 plans they offer with a total enrollment of 1.1 million members in 2005. Comparing the treatment classification based on the 2 sources, we found agreement for 93% of enrollees. In addition, all high-deductible plans identified for this analysis were confirmed by survey data or other communication with the employer.

We calculated annual family costs for medical care (insurance and patient payments for care received) and divided these by 12 to obtain the mean monthly expenditures. Parallel calculations resulted in the mean monthly expenditures in each of the following 4 healthcare settings: outpatient, inpatient, emergency department, and prescription drugs.

The following 6 preventive care outcomes were created based on Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set (HEDIS) measure definitions15: 2 child immunization

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