NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 30, 2010

Insured Americans are using fewer medical services, according to recent data from doctor-billing and lab-testing companies, hospitals and insurers, prompting experts to question if patients are decreasing health care utilization because their share of costs is increasing, the Wall Street Journal reports.  Insurers Aetna and WellPoint noted that the trend is new as of this year and is something they have not experienced before, even during times when the economy was at its worst. 

According to the Journal: 

  • Insured Americans are forgoing different types of care, such as elective procedures, for various reasons.
  • Some insurers cited a mild influenza season this year as a reason for the lower utilization rates.
  • Further, more Americans are currently purchasing high-deductible coverage that forces them to absorb high upfront costs for services, causing them to avoid procedures that are not needed.
  • About 18 million Americans purchased high-deductible plans this year, compared with 13 million in 2009, according to Paul Mango, a director at the consulting firm McKinsey. 

If utilization rates continue to decline, it could bring down increasing health costs in general, a longtime goal of lawmakers. However, experts disagree over whether the trend will continue.  Paul Ginsburg, a health economist who runs the Center for Studying Health System Change, said that low utilization could go beyond the recession, noting that being a less aggressive consumer of health care is here to stay.  However, UnitedHealth Group said it believes utilization will increase again during the second part of the year when consumers exhaust their deductibles and insurers begin paying for insurance. 

Source: "Medical Service: Usage Down Among U.S. Residents, Recent Data Indicates," American Health Line, July 29, 2010; based upon: Avery Johnson, Jonathan D. Rockoff and Anna Wilde Mathews, "Americans Cut Back on Visits to Doctor," Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2010. 

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