Social & Education Policy

Not Your Father‘s Health Insurance Discount Medical Plans and the Health Care Crisis

Gordon, C.
12/2010

Abstract

The steady ascent of health care costs, the erosion of job-based health insurance, and the growing ranks of the uninsured and underinsured have conjured up a wide array of products promising health savings or security. These include various ―consumer (nongroup) coverage options, including health savings plans and limited, high-deductible or catastrophic insurance. And they include a profusion of discount medical plans, most of which offer some combination of discounts on ancillary medical services and access to group or ―preferred provider rates on conventional (doctor and hospital) medical services.

The real value of discount cards is unclear — and obscured by the industry‘s marketing structure and billing practices. But given a typical annual cost of about $400/year, plan subscription would only begin to pay off after an accumulation of over $2,000 in medical expenses. Much beyond that, especially in the event of catastrophic expenses, discounts would either make little difference or disappear upon failure to pay at time of service. Because they offer little benefit for those with light medical expenses and no security for those with substantial expenses, the likelihood that discount medical plans ―pay off for health consumers is slim.

The future of these plans, in the wake of health reform, is unclear — and will depend largely on the pace and terms of its implementation. What is clear, as of this report, is the legion of problems that accompany this sprawling and unevenly regulated industry.