Using private health insurance exchanges to hold down corporate health benefits spending results in higher use of workers’ compensation, researchers at HCMS Group found.
An analysis of private-employer data in the HCMS Research Reference Database showed that workers who selected health insurance plans with lower monthly premiums and higher deductibles filed more claims for workers’ compensation than the year before. Most of the people in the study opted for the less-expensive plans, designated bronze and silver under the Affordable Care Act.
Many American self-insured employers opted into private insurance exchanges in an effort to reduce their exposure to volatile and surging healthcare costs fueled by the healthcare law. Private exchanges are similar to the public exchanges established under the legislation. Notable employers using these exchanges to replace risk-bearing self-insurance plans include Sears Holdings, Darden Restaurants, Petco Animal Supplies, and IBM. These companies gave workers subsidies for buying health insurance from a menu of four or five plans, typically engaging a consulting firm to set up the exchange.
The HCMS findings show how medical-cost risk can migrate from one expense category to others, as documented years ago by HCMS. To prevent that from happening, employers need integrated health benefits data to carry out a comprehensive health benefits overhaul. This should take into account not only medical benefits but also incentives related to workers’ compensation and short-term disability. HCMS research shows that employers can lower total benefit costs by 10% to 15% by offering a single aligned-incentives health plan with a health account, incentives to use primary care and prevention services for complex medical situations, and a deductible design that favors value-based use of hospitals and specialists offering the best care at the lowest cost.
HCMS researchers compared expenses from the first five months of 2014 with those from the first five months of 2013. People with high-deductible health plans filed 8.1% more claims for workers’ compensation in the 2014 period than a year earlier. This suggests that people migrated to the workers’ compensation system in response to cost-sharing incentives. That happens mostly with musculoskeletal conditions (such as back injury or pain and carpal tunnel) where patients and providers have leeway to say whether it is work-related or not. If chalking a condition up to work avoids out-of-pocket expense to cover a deductible, then workers have an incentive to do so.
Bottom line for employers: The study shows that reducing the risk of healthcare costs is more complex than simply steering workers to medical insurance exchanges. These systems will push some of that risk back to employers in the form of increased use of workers’ compensation and lost time benefits. This should be a major factor for employers in deciding on healthcare exchanges.
— By Robert L. Simison, HCMS Communications
On behalf of HCMS Data Analytics