An advocate of consumer-driven health care will often be challenged by this question: “So, when I am hit by a bus, or have a heart attack or stroke, or am suffering from dementia, you want me to go shopping around for medical care?”
Obviously not. Nevertheless, this is a serious challenge and invites the question: How much of our health spending can be meaningfully controlled by discriminating patients? Researchers at the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI) recently addressed this. The HCCI has a unique advantage in producing such research, because has access to a database of claims for employer-based plans run by a number of insurers.
The research categorized “shoppable” versus “non-shoppable” services. It found:
- At most, 43 percent of the $524.2 billion spent on health care by individuals with employer-sponsored insurance in 2011 was spent on shoppable services.
- About 15 percent of total spending in 2011 was spent by consumers out-of-pocket.
- $37.7 billion (7 percent of total spending) of the out-of-pocket spending in 2011 was on shoppable services.
So, it looks like only 7 percent of health spending is subject to price-conscious patients spending their dollars wisely. The researchers concluded that “Overall, the potential gains from the consumer price shopping aspect of price transparency efforts are modest.” That would be true if we were talking about just forcing price transparency on the current benefit design. However, that is a distraction.