High Deductible Insurance and Delayed Advanced Cancer Diagnosis

Neil Osterweil

July 14, 2022

In oncology, delayed care may result in a failed opportunity to achieve remission. Delays in diagnosis can result in patients having to undergo more extensive surgery, radiation exposure, or more intensive drug therapy than if their disease had been detected at an early stage.

Now, researchers at Harvard Medical School, Boston, report that patients with high-deductible health insurance plans are significantly more likely to have a delay in diagnosis of metastatic cancer, compared with patients with low-deductible plans.

Using national insurance claims data, the authors conducted an observational study to examine what happened when some workers with employer-based insurance were switched from low-deductible to high-deductible plans, compared with a control group of workers who remained on low-deductible plans.

After the switch, workers shunted into high-deductible plans had a longer time to first diagnosis of a metastatic cancer, indicating delayed detection of advanced disease, compared with controls. The difference translated into a delay in diagnosis of metastatic disease of nearly 5 months, reported Nico Trad, BA, a fourth-year medical student at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston.

"The takeaway here is that these plans were associated with delayed detection of metastatic cancer. We did not assess the mechanism, but it's a reasonable assumption to make that increased cost-sharing is having some adverse impacts on people's willingness to seek care. And although we didn't study potential impacts, we might anticipate that a delayed diagnosis might also lead to delayed engagement with palliative care," he said in an oral abstract presentation at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

"A delay in initiation of symptom-relieving therapies and a delayed presentation might also lead to greater dissemination of disease throughout the body, which also has the potential to limit therapeutic options," he added.

"Deductible Relief Day"

Trad said that in 2022 more than half of employees are covered by high-deductible health plans, compared with only about 10% in 2006.

This major shift in cost burden coincided with President Joseph Biden's announcement in early 2022 of the "Cancer Moonshot," program with the goal of reducing cancer mortality by 50% over the next 25 years.

"Part of that is cancer prevention and control, which involves timely detection of cancer so that we can treat it early and have better outcomes," he said.

High-deductible health plans ostensibly provide motivation for patients to shop for lower-priced care and avoid unnecessary or low-quality care, but making patients shell out more upfront before their insurance kicks in, while it reduced health care utilization, can also reduce the quality of care, he said.

In 2022, "Deductible Relief Day," the day in which the average patient has satisfied the deductible and insurance starts to pick up more of the tab, occurred in mid-May, compared with late February in 2006.

Insurance Claims Data

Trad and colleagues used health insurance claims data from a nationally representative cohort of privately insured patients in a national commercial and Medicare Advantage database. They excluded patients 65 and older who were eligible for Medicare because it does not have high-deductible options.

The study cohort included 345,401 adults from the ages of 18 to 64 whose employers mandated a switch from a low-deductible plan which was defined as $500 or less, to a high-deductible plan defined as $1,000 or more. Controls were 1,654,775 contemporaneous adults whose employers offered only low-deductible plans. Both groups had a 1-year baseline period when all members were enrolled in low deductible plans.

To minimize the possibility of confounding, the investigators matched the participants by age, gender, race/ethnicity, morbidity according to Adjusted Clinical Group score, poverty level, geographic region, employer size, baseline primary cancer, baseline medical and pharmacy costs, and follow-up duration.

During the baseline period, the hazard ratio for time to a first observed metastatic cancer diagnosis in the main cohort, compared with controls, was 0.96 with a nonsignificant P value, indicating no difference in the time to diagnosis between the groups.

During a maximum 13.5 years of follow-up, however, the participants who had been switched after a year to a high-deductible plan had a significantly longer time to first metastatic diagnosis (HR, 0.88; P = .01), indicating delayed diagnosis relative to controls. This difference translated to a delay of 4.6 months associated with the higher out-of-pocket costs plans.

According to a systematic review and meta-analysis published online in 2020, a 1-month delay in treatment for many types of cancer can translate into a 6% to 13% higher risk for death, a risk that continues to increase with further delays.

The investigators acknowledged that the study was limited by the use of retrospective claims-based data, which not contain information on how the patients fared after diagnosis.

"I would say in terms of policy relevance that this really points to the need for new and innovative insurance models that, No. 1, reduce the cost-sharing burden for patients so that they're not deterred from seeking care, and No. 2, that align rather than contradict the goal of improving population-level survival from cancer," Trad said.

Further Evidence of a Flawed System

The study adds to an already strong body of evidence showing that high-deductible plans can have a negative impact on health, said Sara R. Collins, vice president for health care coverage and access at the Commonwealth Fund, a New York–based private foundation dedicated to improving health care.

"This is really the latest evidence on top of years of research that shows that high-deductible health plans lead people to make decisions that are not in the best interest of their health," said Ms. Collins, who is not affiliated with the study presented at ASCO.

"We have a health care cost problem in the United States that far exceeds that of other high-income countries. Insurers try to solve it by shifting the costs to consumers and using other measures to restrict people's use of health care, and often needed health care like this. The result is less access to needed care, and long-term adverse health consequences and their associated costs to patients and the health system generally," she said.

The real driver of health care costs is not utilization, but the prices that insurers and providers negotiate in their service contracts, she explained.

"Prices are the central problem, insurers have control over those prices in their negotiations with providers. So unless we can gain control of that driver, patients are going to continue to suffer unnecessarily from both the short- and long-term effects of insurers who use tools to reduce their access to care," she said.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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