Pandemic Could Depress Health Care Costs

A new study predicts that employer health care costs will be stable or could fall this year because medical care for people who are not infected with COVID-19 has actually declined precipitously during the pandemic, all of which would bode well for insurance rates.

Because of the fear of contagion, health care practitioners have expressed concern that people who have had mild heart attacks or strokes or other ailments have not gone to hospital for treatment.

Additionally, the number of elective surgeries has plummeted during the pandemic. In other words, deferred medical care is pushing down overall medical expenses borne by employers and group health plan insurers.

Several factors at play

There are other factors at play besides deferred medical care. Because people are also social distancing to protect against contracting COVID0-19, they are not contracting other communicable diseases like the cold and flu.

Also, because of shelter-at-home orders, people are not involved in as many accidents, like vehicle crashes and sports injuries. Violent crime, shootings and stabbings have also plummeted, meaning fewer people are coming to the emergency room with serious or life-threatening injuries.

“With treatment for COVID-19 top of mind, people have been putting off non-emergency medical care, including routine office visits and elective procedures at hospitals,” said Trevis Parson, chief actuary of Willis Towers Watson. “Given this reduction in use of medical services, we expect cost reductions due to care deferral to more than offset projected cost increases associated with COVID-19 infections.”

The WTW study notes that infection levels vary greatly from city to city and region to region. Less densely populated areas are faring better than large cities. It estimates overall health care costs this year based on various infection rates and how much medical care is deferred as follows:

  • In areas with a 1% infection level (rural areas) – Employer costs could decline between 1% and 4%.
  • In areas with a 15% infection level (large cities and surrounding areas) – Employer costs could rise or fall by roughly 1%.
  • In areas with a 20% infection level (large metropolises) – Employer costs could rise between 1% and 3%.

WTW noted that ultimately the financial impact on group health care plans will depend on how much the virus spreads and how severe the illness is in those people who are hospitalized.

The estimates in the analysis only reflect increases to employer medical and pharmacy claim costs for this year. Other health care plan costs, such as dental and vision, will likely see lower costs in 2020, as employees will likely eliminate some discretionary care.

The analysis also does not consider other impacts, including non-health benefit costs (e.g., disability and life insurance), increased mortality and broad negative economic impact.

The study is an update to a WTW analysis released in late March that estimated employers could see health care benefit costs rise by 7% due to the pandemic.

At the time, WTW estimated that at a 10% infection level, benefit costs could rise by 1% to 3%, while a 30% infection level could see costs rise by 4% to 7%. At the highest rate included in the analysis, a 50% infection level, costs could rise between 5% and 7%.

Another study by ehealth.com backs up WTW’s findings. An earlier poll of health insurers found that COVID-19 will have little effect on 2021 health insurance product menus or premiums. In fact, 83% of insurers polled said they did not anticipate raising rates in 2021 as a result of the crisis.

Although 17% of the insurers said they thought COVID-19 could lead to an increase in rates, none predicted COVID-19 would increase 2021 rates by more than 5%, according to the survey.

Other positives

The ehealth.com survey of 33 insurance companies also found the following:

  • 32 insurers said they are waiving deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs for testing.
  • 19 insurers said they are waiving out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 treatment.
  • 32 insurers are seeing enrollees make more use of telemedicine services.