Will Choice-Based Reform Work for

June 2006
Florence CS, Atherly A, Thorpe KE.

Health Services Research - June 2006

Objective. To examine the effect of premiums and benefits on the health plan choices of older enrollees who choose Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) health plans as their primary payer.

Data Sources. Administrative enrollment data from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and plan premiums and benefits data taken from the Checkbook Guide to health plans.

Study Design. We estimate individual plan choice models where the choice of health plan is a function of out-of-pocket premium, actuarial value, plan attributes, and individual characteristics. Plan attributes include plan structure (fee-for-service/preferred provider organization, point-of-service, or health maintenance organization), drug benefit structure, and whether or not the plan covers other types of spending such as dental services and diabetic supplies. The models are estimated by conditional logit. Our study focuses on three populations that currently choose FEHBP as their primary health care coverage and are similar to the Medicare population: current employees and retirees who are approaching the age of Medicare eligibility (ages 60–64) and current federal employees age 65+. Current employees age 65+ are eligible for Medicare, but their FEHBP plan is their primary payer. Retirees and employees 60–64 are not yet eligible for Medicare but are similar in many respects to recently age-eligible Medicare beneficiaries. We also estimate our model for current employees age 55 and younger as a comparison group.

Data Collection Methods. We select a random sample of retirees and employees age 60–64, as well as all current employees age 65+, from the OPM administrative database for the calendar year 2001. The plan choices available to each person are determined by the plans participating in their metropolitan statistical area. We match plan premium and attribute information from the Checkbook Guide to each plan in the enrollee's list of choices.

Principal Findings. We find that current workers 65+, 60–64, and non-Medicare eligible retirees are sensitive to variation in plan premiums. The premium elasticities for these groups are similar in magnitude to those of the age 55 and under employee group. Older workers and retirees not yet eligible for Medicare are willing to pay a substantial amount for plans with open provider networks. The willingness to pay for open networks is significantly greater for these groups than for younger employees. Willingness to pay for open network plans varies significantly by income, but varies little by age within group.

Conclusions. Our finding that older workers and non-Medicare eligible retirees are sensitive to plan premiums suggests that choice-based reform of Medicare would lead to cost-conscious choices by Medicare beneficiaries. However, our finding that these groups are willing to pay more for open network plans than younger employees suggest that higher risk individuals may migrate toward higher benefit, higher cost plans. Our findings on the relationship between income and willingness to pay for open network plans suggest that means testing is a viable reform for lowering Medicare program costs.