High-deductible health plans (HDHPs) are a new and controversial approach to increasing the share of health care costs paid by patients. Our study had the following aims: (1) to describe the experiences of families with HDHPs who had incurred high out-of-pocket costs and (2) to identify areas where clinicians could support more effective health care decisions by such families.
We conducted four focus groups with adults whose families had HDHPs in a New England-based health plan and had experienced high or unexpected out-of-pocket health care costs during the past 12 months. Transcripts of audio recordings were independently coded by three investigators using modified grounded theory techniques.
The 21 focus group participants had a good general understanding of how their HDHP worked, but reported confusion about specific processes due to the plans' complexity. They described heightened awareness of health care costs, and identified important barriers to their ability to control costs. These included needing to seek care for urgent problems without having the time to assess potential costs; having mistaken expectations about what services the HDHP covered; and being reluctant to discuss costs with doctors. They attempted to control costs by delaying or avoiding visits to doctors, but felt they had little control over costs once a clinical encounter had begun.
Patients with HDHPs reported heightened sensitivity to health care costs, and described important barriers to their ability to make effective choices. Helping such patients make optimal decisions will likely require systems-level changes that involve clinicians and health insurers.