More than $25,000?! How did we get here?

Hart, SueThe cost of healthcare for a typical American family of four covered by an employer-sponsored preferred provider organization (PPO) plan is now $25,826, according to the 2016 Milliman Medical Index (MMI). One question that comes to mind is “how did we get here?” The MMI excerpt below highlights an illustrative company with four employees to explain how healthcare costs may be spread across an employer’s population.

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In the example in Figure 3, our employer pays the same amount for each family, regardless of the family’s healthcare costs. Each employee also pays the same for his or her family in the form of payroll deduction. The averages paid by the employer and employee for all families are consistent with the components of the MMI shown in Figure 4 (see study); however, each family has very different healthcare expenditures.

• Family 1 uses limited health services—some preventive visits for which they pay nothing out-of-pocket and copays for prescription drugs and office visits.
• The second family is fairly healthy as well, with similar services, but their oldest child had a single visit to the emergency room (ER) and follow-up visits that cost $6,000, of which the family paid $964 out-of-pocket.
• Family 3 welcomed a new baby. Maternity care, a hospital stay, and newborn visits cost $22,000, of which the family’s out-of-pocket cost was $5,000.
• Last is Family 4: The father has a chronic condition that put him in the hospital once, along with multiple visits to the ER and physicians, and multiple prescriptions. The mother also has health issues and the resultant ongoing costs, including specialty drugs. The children have only routine healthcare services. The family’s costs were capped by an out-of-pocket limit of $11,000, but total expenditures were nearly $75,000.

On average, the total cost of care for all four of the example families is $25,826, which equals the 2016 MMI. And yet the variation among family costs is striking, with the most costly being 74 times the least costly. The range of amounts paid by the family through contributions to care and out-of-pocket costs is significantly tighter, with Family 1 paying about $7,000 and Family 4 paying about 2½ times that, at nearly $18,000. This lower difference in total costs among the four families is driven by the employee’s payroll deduction being based on the average cost of care for a family of four, along with plan design features that limit the family’s out-of-pocket payments.

While the above is only an illustration, it demonstrates the range of healthcare costs that different families may experience, and how those costs may be spread across the employer’s population. It also shows that employee financial incentives to consume healthcare efficiently are limited, which contributes to the rising costs. First, the majority of the healthcare cost is often paid by the employer rather than the employee. Second, first-dollar coverage and fixed-dollar copays insulate patients from the true cost of their care. For example, although patients might pay $150 to visit the ER, which could seem like a lot of money, they are often unaware that the ER’s total charges could be several thousand dollars. And last, those with more extensive health issues may hit their out-of-pocket maximums and have limited incentives to avoid additional costs.

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