The Star Tribune bought a UnitedHealth Group news release hook, line and sinker this week. United announced the findings of a three-year study of "consumer-driven health care plans." It reported "that the cost to employers per member in a high-deductible plan declined 3 to 5 percent, while increasing 8 to 10 percent for others."
The paper provided no details of the group surveyed. How old were they? How well-educated were they? What was their average income? Was this a cherry-picked group of healthy, higher-motivated, higher-educated, better-informed, better-able-to-shop-around employees? These are essential questions. The answers were not provided.
The Star Tribune at least did note some other opinions: one that such plans are not necessarily cheaper than traditional plans for employers, and another that these results may be preliminary. But the story still tilted far too much to the insurance industry party line, that "consumers are more discerning when they are confronted with prices and are less inclined to pay for expensive visits to the emergency room to treat something basic such as a fever or an ankle sprain."
The "put-consumer-skin-in-the-game" philosophy, in the absence of sufficient tools to help consumers play the game, is wrongheaded.
In their own city, the paper could have turned to skeptics such as former U.S. Senator David Durenberger, who recently wrote: "It’s in my best interest – and that of my children and grandchildren – to live in communities of integrated health, medical and long term care systems. It is in such communities that responsibility is shared equally among consumer, professional and insurer, and where greater accountability is demanded of those whose mixed motives might conflict with serving the consumer’s primary interest. Dis-integration is the goal of consumer-driven health care and its principal supporters in the individual insurance industry."