Unbiased Analysis of Today's Healthcare Issues

Value-Based Cost Sharing

Written By: Jason Shafrin - Feb• 04•09

Many policy experts have been proponents of value-based cost sharing.  Under value-based cost sharing, medical care that is seen to provide a higher marginal benefit to the patient will have lower coinsurance rates than medical care with lower marginal benefits.  If value-based cost sharing would be implemented, preventive care should have low coinsurance rates because of the subsequent health benefit.

This seems like a very attractive way to design health insurance benefits, but a paper by Pauly and Blavin (JHE 2008) asks if value-based cost sharing is truly a novel concept.

First, under perfect information, there is no reason to have value-based cost sharing.  In this case, patients should internalize the marginal benefits–now and in the future.  “When all agents have perfect knowledge of patient illness states and benefits of care, optimal coinsurance should be zero; insurance should take the form of a fixed dollar (indemnity) payment to cover the full cost of care when care is cost-effective, and should pay nothing in circumstances in which care has benefits that fall short of cost.”

Under asymmetric information, however, patients may make naive decisions.  For instance, patients may decide to forgo preventive care because the do not realize its long-term health benefits.  Coinsurance rates must still be designed to balance the twin goals of risk sharing and averting moral hazard.  Lower coninsurance rates will incentivize patients to get needed care.  However, designing coinsurance rates solely based on the marginal benefit of the procedure may not be optimal once we take into account that patient moral hazard may increase medical care above optimal levels.  

Pauly and Blavin also note that under asymmetric information, “it may now be the more price responsive service that should get the cost reduction, since lowering its cost sharing will have a larger effect in terms of moving it closer to the ideal level than would be the case for a less responsively demanded service.  That is, if patient ignorance resulting in underestimation of benefits from care in a given setting is severe enough, the direct relationship between price responsiveness and optimal cost sharing should be reversed.”

Yet just because value-based cost sharing can work does not mean that is the only solution.  Instead of spending money to reduce coinsurance rates, insurance companies or policymakers could spend money to inform consumers of the true benefits and costs of different types of medical care.  This is especially true of medical services that are not price responsive; where the only way to convince patients to undergo these potentially uncomfortable procedures is to increase information dissemination.  For instance, most people would prefer not to undergo a colonoscopy even at a price of 0.  The only way to convince patients that the procedure is needed is by information dissemination.

Value-based cost sharing is not a magic bullet, but may be a useful technique in the presence of asymmetric information.

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