Insured Americans are using fewer medical services, raising questions about whether patients are consuming less health care as they pick up a greater share of the costs.
The drop in usage is showing up as health-care companies report financial results. Insurers, lab-testing companies, hospitals, and doctor-billing concerns say that patient visits, drug prescriptions, and procedures were down in the second quarter from year-ago levels.
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"People just aren't using health care like they have," said Wayne DeVeydt, WellPoint Inc.'s chief financial officer, in an interview Wednesday. "Utilization is lower than we expected, and it's unusual."
Others say that consumers are beginning to forgo elective procedures like knee replacements. "We have a very weak economy and it's just a different environment for the elective parts of health care," said Paul Ginsburg, a health economist who runs the Center for Studying Health System Change and has been analyzing health-company earnings. But "this could go beyond the recession. Being a less aggressive consumer of health care is here to stay."
Continued weak demand could eventually put downward pressure on spiralling health-care costs, a long-sought goal of policy makers. It could also force insurers to lower premiums.
The new trend comes amid a broader drop in health-care use as more Americans lose their jobs and their health insurance. Such cutbacks have happened before in recessions, but the drop seems to be more pronounced this time, industry analysts say.
More Americans also are buying high-deductible health plans that force them to bear more of the upfront costs for health services. Some 18 million Americans bought high-deductible plans this year, compared with 13 million last year, according to Paul Mango, a director at consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
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At the beginning of the year, Dan and Natalie Johnson, of Gig Harbor, Wash., used the website eHealthInsurance.com to buy a new plan with a high deductible, now set at $5,500 for their family. Their previous coverage had no deductible.
Now, the couple says they are thinking twice before scheduling doctor visits. Recently, when their 16-year-old daughter's allergy prescription ran out, Ms. Johnson called the allergist's office to ask for a renewal, without coming in for an appointment, as she would have done under their previous insurance.
And this spring, their son, 14, got his athletic physical at a local urgent-care clinic that charged just $40, instead of a doctor's office, which would have cost about $90. "We don't want to go through our savings going to the doctor," says Ms. Johnson, a photographer.
All this raises the question of whether, after a year of national attention on out-of-control health costs before the federal health overhaul passed in March, the trend portends a lasting change in the way Americans use the medical system.
Just a year ago, insurers reported surging health-care usage. Back then, more consumers were signing up for Cobra, the federal program that allows people who have lost their jobs to keep their insurance. The government had extended a subsidy to cover 65% of the cost of the coverage, which can be prohibitively expensive.
However, the Cobra subsidies only covered the unemployed for 15 months, and many people have hit the limit and dropped coverage. What's more, people who have lost their jobs since the end of May don't qualify for the Cobra subsidies.
To be sure, the change in behavior could be short-lived. On an earnings call last week in which it reported a decline in hospital usage, UnitedHealth Group Inc. (NYSE: UNH - News) said it thought utilization would rise again in the second part of the year, as Americans exhaust their deductibles and insurers start paying for services. Both Aetna Inc. (NYSE: AET - News) and WellPoint (NYSE: WLP - News) said the utilization fall-off was new as of this year, and they had not seen the trend previously even as the economy has deteriorated. Some insurers also cited an unusually mild flu season this year as a temporary factor.
What's more, the federal health overhaul could cause usage to surge again. The new law will hand insurance cards to many Americans in 2014, which could unleash pent-up demand.
Utilization has ticked down in previous recessions, and tends to take a year or two to change because of how far in advance employers and insurers design their health plans, said Carl McDonald, an analyst at Citigroup Investment Research. He said the last time he saw utilization fall off was in 2003, adding that usage also dipped in the early 1990s. But he added the drop is bigger this time than in previous recessions.
The declines in utilization has boosted profits for insurers, who set their prices to cover anticipated medical costs. Insurance industry prices and profits have been under fire by Democrats and regulators this year. Insurers have justified high premiums by pointing to out-of-control medical costs. But the recent drop in usage could make it difficult for insurers to argue that continued price increases are necessary.
On Wednesday, Aetna said usage of health-care fell in the second quarter, feeding a 42% increase in profits. WellPoint reported a 4% earnings bump, saying that hospital admissions and usage of prescription drugs had dropped compared with a year earlier.
After the earnings releases, Rep. Pete Stark (D., Calif.) called on the companies to reduce their premiums since they are paying out less in medical care. In an interview, Aetna's chief financial officer Joseph Zubretsky said companies might eventually have to do just that. "If utilization stays down, it will have a favorable impact on rates," he said.
One company reporting evidence of lower utilization is CVS Caremark Corp. (NYSE: CVS - News), the drugstore giant. In its earnings announcement Wednesday, it said it is seeing a drop-off in new prescriptions for maintenance drugs tied to a decline in physician visits.
People are "visiting fewer primary care doctors and specialists," said Chief Executive Tom Ryan, in a conference call with analysts.
Last week, Quest Diagnostics Inc. (NYSE: DGX - News), a laboratory-testing company, told investors that its volume fell 2.6% in the first quarter and 1.3% in the second partly because of decreasing physician visits. In addition, AmSurg Corp. (NASDAQ: AMSG - News), an outpatient-surgery company, reported that same-store procedures declined by 2.6% compared to a year earlier.
Another sign that people are forgoing doctor visits or getting less care came from athenahealth Inc. (NASDAQ: ATHN - News), which provides billing services and electronic health records for more than 1,700 medical groups. It said last week that the number of claims filed per physician, as well as the average value of the billing for each visit, had dropped from a year earlier.
Physician visits and hospital admissions are dropping this year, according to Thomson Reuters' healthcare business, which surveys doctors and hospitals. Doctor visits have declined each month this year, including a 7.6% drop in May 2010 from May 2009. Likewise, hospital admissions dropped in three of the first four months of this year compared to those months last year, including being down 2.3% in April 2010 from April 2009.