“Reference” Points

Nevin Adams

Nevin Adams

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

We started setting money aside for our children’s college education relatively early, but as they began actually considering their options, it was clear that our savings wouldn’t be enough to cover the expense at some of the schools on their lists. Moreover, while all three wouldn’t all be in college at the same time, there was enough overlap to make it “complicated.”

While we didn’t want to limit our kids’ college choices, we had certain real world constraints—and so we told them how much we could contribute to their college expenses, and that they were free to make up the difference between that figure and the actual expense of the college they chose through their own work, scholarships, and/or debt. As a practical matter, defining our “contribution” may have taken some options off their lists, but, certainly in hindsight, it seemed to give them focus and some real-world context—a reference point—for one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives.      

Employers have been interested in and have tried to implement the “defined contribution” concept for health benefits in a number of different ways. The Revenue Act of 1978 started it with Sec. 125 and flexible spending accounts and “cafeteria plans.” A recent EBRI Issue Brief outlines some of the more recent history, the introduction of health reimbursement arrangements (HRA) in 2001, health savings accounts (HSA) in 2004, and the more recent trend toward private health insurance exchanges, where employers provide a fixed amount of money for workers to use toward the cost of health coverage.

However, the primary focus of the report is another defined contribution approach called reference pricing (RP), under which plan sponsors either pay a fixed amount or limit their contributions toward the cost of a specific health care service. If a plan member chooses a health care provider or service that costs more, he or she must pay the difference in price. Reference pricing is receiving more attention and consideration today because of growing plan sponsor interest in managing health care costs, but the approach is still relatively new; in 2012, 11 percent of employers with 500 or more workers were using some type of RP, and another 16 percent were considering it.

How might such an approach impact cost? EBRI’s analysis indicates that the potential aggregate savings could reach $9.4 billion if all employers adopted reference pricing for the health care services examined in the paper, some 1.6 percent of all spending on health care services among the 156 million people under age 65 with employment-based health benefits in 2010.

As the report notes, savings from reference pricing materializes through the combination of 1) patients choosing providers at the reference price, 2) patients paying the difference between the reference price and the allowed charge through cost sharing, and 3) providers reducing their prices to the reference price. Obviously, any increase in prices among providers below the reference price would reduce the potential for savings.

From an employer perspective, the approach establishes a cost threshold for the service(s) selected, but as the EBRI analysis notes, plan sponsors should obviously consider a number of issues as they weigh adopting reference pricing, including how the reference price is determined and how providers may react. Communication to plan members is also key to effective use of reference pricing.

For plan members, it could represent the potential for expanded choice with some pricing context—but, as with my kids’ college selection process, they’ll likely need more data on prices and quality in order to make truly informed decisions.

Notes

The full report is published in the April EBRI Issue Brief, “Reference Pricing for Health Care Services: A New Twist on the Defined Contribution Concept in Employment-Based Health Benefits” available online here.

”Charge” Accounts

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Adams

Adams

I was a late convert to the convenience of NetFlix, and while I appreciated the convenience of delivery, when they expanded the offering to include online movie viewing “at no additional charge,” I didn’t really “get” it. Aside from the fact that, at that time, my DVD player wasn’t wireless compatible, the selection (certainly in those early days) was unremarkable at best. In fact, I remember telling a friend once that the online movies were free, and worth every penny.

The quality and breadth of selection improved over time, until of course, there came that fateful decision to charge a fee for that online movie access separate and apart from the home DVD delivery. All of a sudden, a service that had been a nice-to-have “at no additional charge” had to be viewed through a whole new prism―it was now a benefit with a cost.

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), group health plans that offer dependent coverage are required to extend coverage to workers’ children until they reach age 26, regardless of student status, marital status or financial support by the employees. It has been estimated that 3.1 million young adults have acquired health coverage as a result of the adult-dependent mandate (ADM) provision, and overall, 31 percent of employers enrolled adult-dependent children as a result of the mandate, according to a recent EBRI report (online here).

However, under PPACA, employers are not allowed to directly charge higher premiums for the cost of this “adult-dependent” coverage. An EBRI analysis of the experience of a single large employer during the period Jan. 1, 2010, through Dec. 31, 2011, found that nearly 700 adult children enrolled in the employer plan in 2011 as a result of the adult dependent mandate―and this group used about $2 million in health care services in 2011 (about 0.2 percent of the over $1 billion in total spending on health care services by that employer that year).

The EBRI report also looked at the claims behaviors of the ADM group compared with a group of dependent children ages 19–25 that were covered prior to Jan. 1, 2011, some 13,000 young adults. Both groups had health coverage for the entire 2011 calendar year through the employer examined in this study. Average spending in the ADM cohort was higher: 15 percent higher than the comparison group, in fact. While the period of review was short, and the experiences associated with that of a single large employer, the ADM group used more inpatient services than the comparison group, and, in what is perhaps the most interesting finding of the analysis, were more likely to incur claims related to mental health, substance abuse, and pregnancy.

So, while this adult-dependent coverage is currently offered “at no additional charge” (certainly for those already carrying family coverage), there are almost certainly additional costs―costs that employers and workers will (and indeed already have begun) to share through claims payments, cost sharing, and worker premiums.

Of course, as a result of this expanded coverage, there also are individuals who might otherwise not have the benefit of the coverage, either because they wouldn’t have access, or would find it to be prohibitively expensive―and this coverage might well be less expensive than the alternative consequences. Little wonder that the debate continues as to whether the provisions of PPACA will serve to increase or decrease long-term health care spending trends.

It will be interesting to see how the health care spending trends of this younger demographic change over time, and how employers respond. It also underlines the importance of ongoing research on these spending and usage patterns as implementation of the PPACA proceeds, even as it serves to remind us that there can be a difference between no additional charge, and no additional cost.

Consumer-Driven Health Plan Participants More Cost-Conscious

Adults in a consumer-driven health plan (CDHP) were more likely than those in a traditional plan to exhibit a number of cost-conscious behaviors, according to new research from EBRI.

While CDHP enrollees, high-deductible health plan (HDHP) enrollees, and traditional-plan enrollees were about equally likely to report that they made use of quality information provided by their health plan, CDHP enrollees were more likely to use cost information and to try to find information about their doctors’ costs and quality from sources other than the health plan, according to the report. Moreover, CDHP enrollees were more likely than traditional-plan enrollees to take advantage of various wellness programs, such as health-risk assessments, health-promotion programs, and biometric screenings. In addition, financial incentives mattered more to CDHP enrollees than to traditional-plan enrollees.

More Americans are continuing to enroll in so-called “consumer-driven” health plans: In 2012, 12 percent of the population was enrolled in a CDHP, up 3 percentage points from last year, according to the new EBRI research, while enrollment in so-called “high deductible” health plans was unchanged, at 16 percent, EBRI found. HDHPs have lower premiums but higher deductibles (at least $1,000 for employee-only coverage) than traditional health plans.

“It is clear that the underlying characteristics of the populations enrolled in these plans are different,” noted Paul Fronstin, director of EBRI’s Health Research and Education Program and author of the report. “Adults in a CDHP were significantly more likely to report being in excellent or very good health, and they were significantly more likely to exercise.” He noted that those in a CDHP and those in a HDHP were significantly less likely to smoke than were adults in a traditional plan—and that CDHP and HDHP enrollees were also more likely than traditional-plan enrollees to be highly educated.

The full report is published in the December EBRI Issue Brief, online at www.ebri.org

Self-Insured Health Plans Growing, Driven by Large Employers

Large private-sector employers are driving a trend toward more “self-insured” health plans, according to a new report by EBRI.

Among employers that offer health coverage to their workers, there are two basic types of insurance plan:

* A self-insured plan, in which the employer assumes the financial risk related to health insurance; or

* A fully insured plan, in which an insurance company is paid to assume the risk.

Historically, large employers have been far more likely to self-insure than have been small employers, the EBRI report notes, and there are significant incentives for them to do so: Large multi-state employers can provide uniform health benefits across state lines if they self-insure (lowering administrative costs) and also are not required to cover state-mandated health care services—as are fully insured plans.

Following the passage and implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), there has been speculation that an increasing number of smaller employers would opt for self-insurance. As the EBRI report explains, some employers think that components of PPACA, such as the strict grandfathering requirements, the minimum-creditable-coverage requirement, the breadth of essential health benefits, affordability requirements, as well as taxes on insurers, medical-device manufacturers, and pharmaceutical companies and reinsurance fees will work to drive up the cost of health coverage.

“Employers generally, and small employers particularly, concerned about the rising cost of providing health coverage may view self-insurance as a better way to control expected cost increases,” notes Paul Fronstin, director of EBRI’s Health Research and Education Program and author of the report. “This new analysis provides a baseline against which to measure future trends.”

Among the findings of the EBRI report:

  • The percentage of workers in private-sector self-insured health plans has been increasing. In 2011, 58.5 percent of workers with health coverage were in self-insured plans, up from 40.9 percent in 1998. To date, large employers (with 1,000 or more workers) have driven the upward trend in overall self-insurance. The percentage of workers in self-insured plans in firms with fewer than 50 employees has remained close to 12 percent in most years examined.
  • Massachusetts, the only state to have enacted health reform similar to PPACA, has seen an increase in the percentage of workers in self-insured plans among all firm-size cohorts, except among workers in firms with fewer than 50 employees.
  • Overall, 58.5 percent of workers were in self-insured plans in 2011, but the percentage ranged by state, from a low of 30.5 percent to a high of 73.8 percent.

Full results are published in the November 2012 EBRI Notes, “Self-Insured Health Plans: State Variation and Recent Trends by Firm Size,” online at www.ebri.org

Predict-Able

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Retirement planning is a complex and highly individualized process, but many people find it easier to start by focusing on a single, specific target number.

For those interested in a single number for health care expenses in retirement, a recent EBRI report provides that.  Among other things, the report noted that a 65-year-old man would need $70,000 in savings and a woman would need $93,000 in 2012 if each had a goal of having a 50 percent chance of having enough money saved to cover their projected health care expenses in retirement.  A 65-year-old couple, both with median drug expenses, would need $163,000 in 2012 to have a 50 percent chance of having enough money to cover health care expenses.1

Determining how much money is needed to cover health care expenses in retirement is complicated.  It depends on retirement age, the length of life after retirement, the availability and source of health insurance coverage after retirement to supplement Medicare, the rate at which health care costs increase, interest rates, market returns, and health status, among other things.  That said, it is possible to project health care expenses with some accuracy, and EBRI’s recent analysis uses a Monte Carlo simulation model to estimate the amount of savings needed to cover health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket health care expenses in retirement.

However, those recent “single number” projections specifically excluded the financial impact of long-term care.

EBRI has long acknowledged the critical impact that health care expenses can have on retirement finances, and considering that EBRI has long incorporated both the costs of health care and long-term care in its Retirement Savings Projection Model® (RSPM), one might well wonder why this particular report specifically excluded those long-term care projections.

For all the complexity in those calculations, the reality is that everyone won’t have to deal with the expenses associated with long-term care.  For those who will, the impact on retirement finances could be significant, even catastrophic.2  That’s why EBRI has modeled their impact in the RSPM since 2003.

As noted above, for those interested in a single number, the recent EBRI report provides that, along with variations that permit one to take into account different likelihoods of success and gender/marital combinations.  We are able to do that because we treat longevity risk and investment risk stochastically,3 and the fact that those expenses (and the costs of insurance) are, at least relatively, predictable.

But while it is possible to come up with a single number that individuals can use to start setting retirement-savings goals, it is important to bear in mind that a single number based on averages will be wrong for the vast majority of the population—and that those who rely exclusively on that single number run the risk of running short.

Notes

1 Unlike reports produced by a number of organizations, the EBRI report also provided estimates for those interested in a better-than-50-percent chance of success.  See ”Savings Needed for Health Expenses for People Eligible for Medicare: Some Rare Good News,” online here.

2 The EBRI Notes article above illustrates the difference: If you ignore the impact of nursing home and home health care expenses, more than 90 percent of single male Gen Xers were projected to have no financial shortfall in retirement—but when that impact was included, just 68 percent of that group was projected to have no financial shortfall in retirement.  The error of ignoring nursing home and home health care costs is even more profound if one focuses on the percentage of individuals with shortfalls in excess of $100,000. 

3 For an expanded description of the difference stochastic modeling can make, see “Single Best Answer.”

See also:  “Employment-Based Retiree Health Benefits: Trends in Access and Coverage, 1997-2010”, and “Effects of Nursing Home Stays on Household Portfolios.”

“Wishful” Thinking?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI

Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that Sears and Darden Restaurants were planning a “radical change in the way they provide health benefits to their workers,” giving employees a fixed sum of money and allowing them to choose their medical coverage and insurer from an online marketplace, or exchange1. “It’s a fundamental change,” EBRI’s director of health research, Paul Fronstin, noted in the WSJ article.

Indeed, this is the time of year when many American workers – and, by extension, most Americans – will find out the particulars of their health insurance coverage for the following year. For most, the changes are likely to be modest. And, based on the 2012 Health Confidence Survey (HCS), not only do most Americans seem to be confident in those future prospects, they would seem to be satisfied with that outcome.

More than half of those with health insurance are extremely or very satisfied with their current plans, and a third are somewhat satisfied. Nearly three-quarters say they are satisfied with the health benefits they receive now, compared with just 56 percent in 2004.

Dissatisfaction, such as there is to be found, appears to be focused primarily on cost; just 22 percent are extremely or very satisfied with the cost of their health insurance plans, and even fewer are satisfied with the costs of health care services not covered by insurance. Perhaps not surprisingly, about one-half (52 percent) of Americans with health insurance coverage report having experienced an increase in health care costs3 in the past year, though that was the lowest rate since this question was added to the survey in 2006.

The HCS found that confidence about various aspects of today’s health care system has remained fairly stable2 – and undiminished either by the passage of, or the recent Supreme Court decision on, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA); more than one-half (56 percent) of respondents report being extremely or very confident that they are able to get the treatments they need, and another quarter (27 percent) report being somewhat confident. Only 16 percent of 2012 HCS respondents said they were “not too” or “not at all” confident that their employer/union would continue to offer health insurance for workers – though that was more than twice as many as expressed that level of concern in 2000.

While respondents were generally supportive of the measures broadening access and/or choice in the PPACA, nearly two-thirds said they hadn’t yet noticed any changes to their health insurance – and among the 31 percent that had, 70 percent said the changes were negative, including impacts such as higher premiums, higher copays, and reduced coverage of services.

Despite a falloff from previous surveys, more than two-thirds (69 percent) of employed workers said that benefits were “very important” in their employment decision, with health insurance topping the list of those important benefits by an enormous margin. Nearly six out of 10 said that health insurance was the most important employee benefit, as has been the case for some time now.

All of which reinforces that, while many see room for improvement in the current system, those that have employment-based health insurance now like it, and want to keep it.

It will be interesting to see if, in the months and years ahead, they get that wish.

Notes

More information from the 2012 Health Confidence Survey (HCS) is online here.  The HCS is sponsored by EBRI and Mathew Greenwald & Associates, Inc., a Washington, DC-based market research firm, and made possible by the generous support of the HCS underwriters, listed here.

 1 More information about private health insurance exchanges is available in the July 2012 EBRI Issue Brief “Private Health Insurance Exchanges and Defined Contribution Health Plans: Is It Déjà Vu All Over Again?” 

 2Asked to rate the health care system, survey respondents offered a diverse perspective: 17 percent rated it either “very good” or “excellent,” 28 percent consider it to be “good,” 28 percent say “fair,” and 26 percent rate it “poor.” However, the percentage of Americans rating the health care system as poor doubled between 1998 and 2004 (rising from 15 percent to 30 percent).

 3Of more than passing concern is the finding that among those experiencing cost increases in their plans in the past year, nearly a third had decreased their contributions to retirement plans, while more than half have decreased their contributions to other savings as a result.

Employment-Based Health Coverage Continues Decline; Uninsured Rate Shrinks as Public Coverage Grows

The uninsured rate for working-age Americans ticked down in 2011, but only because public program coverage grew faster than employment-based health insurance coverage declined, according to a new report by EBRI.

While employment-based health coverage is still the dominant source of health insurance in the United States, it has been steadily shrinking since 2000. The latest data show that it continued to do so last year.

The EBRI analysis finds that the percentage of the nonelderly population (under age 65) with health insurance coverage increased to 82 percent in 2011 (up about half a percentage point from 2010), which is notable since increases in health insurance coverage have been recorded in only three years since 1994.

However, different trends are taking place behind that overall result: Among the nonelderly population, employment-based coverage is trending down (58.4 percent had employment-based benefits in 20011, down from the peak of 69.3 percent in 2000), while public-program coverage is trending up (accounting for 22.5 percent of the nonelderly population, up from the low of 14.1 percent in 1999).

Enrollment in Medicaid (the federal-state health care program for poor) and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) increased to a combined 46.9 million in 2011, covering 17.6 percent of the nonelderly population, significantly above the 10.2 percent level of 1999. Other sources of public health insurance include Medicare (which covers many disabled as well as the elderly), Tricare, CHAMPVA, and Veterans Administration (VA) health insurance.

Full details of the EBRI report, “Sources of Health Insurance and Characteristics of the Uninsured: Analysis of the March 2012 Current Population Survey,” are published in the September 2012 EBRI Issue Brief, no. 376, online at www.ebri.org  The report is based primarily on the March 2012 Current Population Survey (CPS) conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, with some analysis based on other Census surveys.

The full report is online here. The press release is online here.