With high-deductible health plans rising to substantial heights, employers may not be thinking about the extreme changes happening ahead. Here are some tips on how to make a painless transition into a high deductible world.


We’re all familiar with the necessary evils of today’s society: paying taxes, going to the dentist and sitting in rush-hour traffic. Now, there’s another one to add to the list — high deductible health plans (HDHPs). They’re on the rise due to increasingly unmanageable health care costs caused by factors such as increased carrier and hospital consolidation, unregulated pharmaceutical prices, and a lack of financial awareness among medical providers.

In response, prudent employers who want to continue providing health benefits but can’t keep up with the costs are turning to HDHPs to share the financial burden with employees and encouraging those employees to become more disciplined shoppers. This is predictably being met with resistance.

But there’s a more urgent matter at hand: until we find a way to flip the health-care system on its head, we’re anticipating a future where networks get narrower and significantly limit options and deductibles rise to catastrophic heights.

Employers may not be thinking ahead for these drastic changes, which is why brokers can be instrumental in helping clients guide their employees toward the necessary mental and financial preparations. Here are a few ideas to get them started.

1. Shift gears to plan beyond the calendar year.

For most, health care is an infrequent experience that’s handled reactively: you get sick, you go to the doctor, your insurance foots the bill. However, now that employees are on the hook for potentially thousands of dollars, it’s crucial that they plan ahead.

To facilitate this shift in mindset, employers should encourage employees to:

  • Utilize a health savings account (HSA): When it comes to HSAs, people tend to fall into one of two schools of thought: “HSAs are a silver bullet” or “HSAs are a terrible excuse by politicians to allow the existence of HDHPs.” Rarely is a situation so black and white, and this one is no exception. HSAs aren’t the best choice for everyone. Certain demographics can’t afford to juggle the high costs of health care (and life) while also contributing funds to an account. However, it’s important to keep in mind that as costs continue to rise, more people will be pushed above the HSA qualification line and having an account may be the only life raft available when drowning in high deductibles — a trend we’re already starting to see.In an ideal world, the HSA wouldn’t exist. Out-of-control health care costs bear the blame for solutions like HDHPs — and the HSA is our consolation prize. The reason I advocate the utilization of these accounts for long-term planning is because they are the only health care benefit we have that encourages people to think beyond 12 months. Unlike the flexible spending account (FSA), the money in an HSA rolls over every year and grows over time, so it lets people save for years down the road (maybe when the pediatrician bills pile up, or you finally have that major surgery) vs. scrambling to spend their funds before the end of the year. Also, if an employer is contributing to an employee’s HSA, it’s leaving money on the table not to sign up for an account.
  • Shop for the best “deals”: Unless someone is a frequent flyer in the health care system, they might brush off shopping for healthcare since it seems like a lot of effort for a single doctor’s visit. However, considering the fact that the cost of an ACL surgery can vary as much as $17,000, those numbers certainly add up over time. (Even more so if a patient fails to find care that’s in network.) Helping employees understand this concept, and pairing it with an easy-to-use transparency solution, can save them tons of money in the long run — especially if the cost savings from each doctor’s visit are deposited into an HSA for future use.

2. Recognize that options are still available.

I’m not going to try to frame high deductibles in a positive light. It’s not the ideal situation for consumers or employers. But sometimes, just knowing there are options in a seemingly bleak situation can provide temporary relief. Here are some tips for employers to share with employees when they’re frustrated about their HDHPs:

  • Ask questions: Employees shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. Healthcare is known for being convoluted, so it’s likely they’re not alone in any confusion they experience. They should start with health insurance and take time with the HR manager to understand the specifics of their coinsurance, copays, deductibles, and benefits so they’re aware of all their options, such as free preventive services. Another great place for questions is at the doctor’s office. Asking about and negotiating costs (yes, you can do that!) can have huge payoffs — Consumer Reports found that only 31 percent of Americans haggle with doctors over medical bills but that 93 percent of those who did were successful, with more than a third of those saving more than $100.
  • Stay educated: “Education” can be a tired term for brokers and employers. Employees never seem to read the emails and collateral materials that teams painstakingly curate each year. While disheartening, I think the focus on education is a long but ultimately rewarding process. Consider the 401(k). These plans struggled through the recessions in the early 2000s, but through constant behavioral reinforcement (helped largely by policies such as The Pension Protection Act, which made it easier for companies to automatically enroll their employees in 401(k) plans) and continued efforts by employers, 401(K)s bounced back and hold $4.8 trillion in assets today.The same lesson can be applied to your education efforts as well. That is, eventually the education will stick. So help create a new ecosystem for employees to navigate by getting timely information and resources out there about maximizing HDHPs and utilizing HSAs.

3. Stay optimistic because change is coming.

This point is a bit more abstract. Worrying about health care costs is exhausting, and things are likely to get worse before they get better. However, there’s been a lot of news in the health care space that should bring a glimmer of optimism.

For instance, we heard about the partnering of three industry powerhouses to create a new health care company for their employees. It’s been fascinating to see how much chatter this announcement has already generated and will likely keep traditional employer health care vendors on their toes.

While the trend of employers building coalitions to tackle health care costs is nothing new and it’s too early to tell how successful this initiative will be, the bigger point is that this is a strong signal that change is desperately needed. More and more companies — regardless of what industry they’re in — are starting to realize that they’re all in the business of health care. And as we gain power in numbers, I believe we will build the momentum to create some serious change.

It’s tough to win in today’s health care world, and it’s likely going to get even more challenging over the next few years.  But if brokers and employers can provide the right level of guidance, education, and resources, they can help employees better mentally and financially manage their high-deductible futures.

SOURCE:
Vivero, D (2 July 2018) “3 ideas to ease the transition to a high-deductible world” [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.benefitspro.com/2018/02/08/3-ideas-to-ease-the-transition-to-a-high-deductibl/