The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2015, The New York Times Company).
It’s open enrollment season for almost every kind of health insurance in America. Millions of Americans using Medicare plans, employer-sponsored health insurance or Affordable Care Act marketplaces select health plans each fall. Many consumers face numerous options, and research shows that they make many mistakes, often paying more than they need to.
Some err by selecting deductibles that are too low. Lower deductibles can be a fine choice for some consumers, but trying to save money with a lower deductible can be a poor choice if a person pays even more in premiums. For instance, at one large American company in 2010, employees could reduce their deductible by $250 — to $750 from $1,000 — by paying $500 more in premiums. Trading $500 for $250 is clearly a bad deal for the consumer.
Yet a majority of the firm’s workers made bad deals like this, according to a study by Saurabh Bhargava, a Carnegie Mellon economist, and his colleagues. Workers were offered a choice of 48 plans that were identical except in cost sharing and premiums. Though no plan would have been optimal for every employee, a $1,000 deductible plan would have been better for many and at least a no-worse choice for 97 percent of employees who chose a lower deductible.
People make mistakes like this for a variety of reasons. Some don’t understand basic health insurance concepts. In an experiment accompanying Mr. Bhargava’s study, 71 percent of people couldn’t identify fundamental cost-sharing features of health insurance plans. This type of illiteracy was highly predictive of mistakes like overpaying for a lower deductible.
Another study, led by George Lowenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon, found that people misunderstood plan features and costs. Even with plan details right in front of them, only 40 percent of privately insured Americans could identify how much they’d have to pay for an M.R.I. scan. Only 11 percent could report what a four-day hospital stay would cost them. Yet study subjects were overconfident. All said they understood what a “co-pay” was, but 28 percent could not correctly answer a question testing their understanding of the term; only 7 percent would admit to not knowing what “maximum out-of-pocket” meant, but 41 percent couldn’t define it.
Another study found that less than a third of respondents could correctly answer questions about coverage features of their own plan. Yet another found that only a minority of workers at a large firm could answer questions about plan characteristics or their own, recent health care spending.
Without a doubt, choosing a plan can be daunting. A shopper in the Affordable Care Act marketplace can choose from 40 plans, on average. A typical Medicare beneficiary can choose from among nearly 20 Medicare Advantage plans and 30 stand-alone prescription drug plans.
In selecting plans, consumers are prone to mental shortcuts that often lead to poor choices. Plan labels — like the “gold,” “silver” or “bronze” — can fool people. To some, “gold” sounds better than “bronze,” even if it isn’t. In one study, people were asked to select hypothetical plans with these labels, but the researchers reversed the meaning of “gold” and “bronze” for half of them. It didn’t matter. Most people picked “gold” anyway.
The ordering of choices also matters. Consumers tend to select plans near the top of a list, a phenomenon that arises in other contexts: Economists download more papers from the tops of lists of new studies, as my colleague Neil Irwin reported; politicians at the top of ballots receive more votes.
Eric Johnson, a Columbia business professor, led a study that found that without substantial additional assistance, a consumer’s likelihood of selecting the lowest-cost plan is no better than chance. The researchers conducted a series of experiments on people similar to those who would shop for marketplace coverage. Each study participant was asked to presume he’d use a certain amount of health care and, based on that, to choose the lowest-cost plan from among eight choices, which varied by premium, doctor co-pay and deductible. Only 21 percent could accomplish this task, a figure not statistically different from chance. The annual cost of errors was about $250.
A separate analysis showed that participants had a stronger aversion to an increase in costs in deductible or co-pay than to the same increase in premium. Because a dollar is a dollar, no matter how you spend it, this is another indication of irrational decision making.
But when study subjects were provided with a tutorial or with a calculator that revealed the full cost of each plan, or if they were placed in the lowest-cost plan by default (from which they could voluntarily switch), their chance of selecting the cheapest plan was much higher, upward of 75 percent in some experiments.
Though some Medicare beneficiaries switch to lower-cost drug plans over time, another way consumers get stuck with bad deals is by staying in plans as their premiums increase, a status quo bias. One study found that New Jersey enrollees in Medicare prescription drug plans paid an average of $536 more over three years because of this kind of inertia. Some insurers strategically enter markets with low prices and increase them over time, exploiting consumers’ inertia. This “invest then harvest” pricing strategy has been observed in markets for Medicare Advantage plans, commercial health insurance and others.
Providing consumers with easier access to cost comparison information can help. A study published in The Journal of Economics in 2012 found that when a random sample of Medicare beneficiaries got letters that compared prescription drug plan costs, they were more likely to switch plans and to save money, relative to nonrecipients. When pharmacy students helped California Medicare beneficiaries understand drug plan costs, 60 percent switched plans.
Few consumers get this much help. When researchers at the University of Pennsylvania examined the Obamacare online marketplaces last year, they found only a few that provided some of the tools consumers need. Most marketplaces presented plans in order of the cost of the premium, which doesn’t take other cost sharing into account. (However, California ranked plans according to total cost, Kentucky listed them randomly, and Minnesota ranked them based on best match according to a series of preference questions, similar in spirit to an approach recommended by University of California, Berkeley economists in a recent Brookings policy paper.)
Only three states offered cost estimators. The federal government’s site, HealthCare.gov, will offer more information about plans — like which physicians are in plan networks — and cost comparison tools.
If last year is any guide, once again few consumers will actively shop for a more beneficial plan. An analysis by the Department of Health and Human Services showed that more than 70 percent could have found a cheaper plan. The research is clear: Most won’t find that cheaper plan without a great deal more help.