Thinking About Health: Facing the realities of high-deductible insurance


Pat Mallett, a self-employed businessman in Littleton, had heard a lot about Obamacare and thought that a policy available in the new state shopping exchange would offer him a better deal than the coverage he had. The policy that covered him, his wife and two teenage kids cost about $400 per month and came with a $5,000 deductible, which meant they paid cash for routine office visits and annual physicals — up to a total of $5,000 per year.

Thinking About Health

This biweekly column about health issues publishes on Mondays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.


Courtesy photo

Trudy Lieberman

Mallett had heard the praise for Obamacare. “It sounded like I was going to do better, and it might be a good fit for me,” he said. So he let his policy lapse at the end of the year and started shopping. Much to his surprise, the premiums and deductibles for family coverage on the exchange were a lot higher.

“I didn’t believe what I was seeing,” he told me. He decided to focus his shopping on the products offered by Kaiser Permanente, a health plan that appealed to him because of its reputation for preventive care and controlling costs. He looked at a bronze plan that would cost $821 per month. Deductibles were $10,000 for a family and $5,000 for each family member, and there was 30 percent coinsurance, a percentage of the bill he would have to pay, on “practically everything.” When he asked the Kaiser customer representative what that meant, “she said you pay 100 percent of the charge until you reach $10,000 (for the whole family) or $5,000 for a family member and 30 percent of what they charge after that,” Mallett told me.

His family is eligible for a tax credit this year of $510, and that seemed helpful. Mallet’s income depends on commissions, and his income, he said, is like a roller coaster. A high subsidy he qualifies for now may turn into a low one next year. Then he started doing the math based on a subsidy of $510, which the state’s calculator determined was the amount he could get.

The numbers showed that based on this subsidy and the $10,000 family deductible, he could be paying 18.3 percent of his income for this policy if his family used a lot of medical services. The policy was, in effect, meant for catastrophic illnesses, not run-of-the-mill health care. When he crunched the numbers again assuming his family income would be at the maximum for qualifying for a subsidy — around $94,000 — he would be paying more than 21 percent of his income for insurance and health care.

Mallett had bumped against the important and seldom discussed distinction between affordable health insurance and affordable health care. In the publicity blitz to get people signed up and the constant backlash from Obamacare opponents, this distinction has blurred.

The insurance Mallett was considering was affordable; the subsidies brought the monthly premiums down to $311, but if unexpected health problems surface, the family is on the hook for a lot of money. Then their health care may not be affordable. The Affordable Care Act states that the maximum out-of-pocket the family will have to spend this year is $12,700. Next year, it goes up to $13,200. A family with the U.S. median income of about $53,000, for example, might find health care unaffordable if they have to pay the maximum out-of-pocket amount the law allows.

High-deductible policies have become the reality in the new insurance market places partly because they lower the premiums but also because they may deter people from seeking medical care. Plans with high deductibles were becoming an insurance reality long before Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, but Obamacare has helped make them more common.

Given that they are now the norm, here are a few things to keep in mind:

• Smaller deductibles generally go hand in hand with higher coinsurance.

• Not all copays, a flat amount you pay for a service, count toward satisfying the deductible. Drug copays may not count.

• A deductible that equals the federal out-of-pocket maximum, this year $6,350 for an individual, is a red flag. It means you have a policy that is intended to pay very little except in case of a catastrophe when you reach the maximum expenses. Many people never reach that maximum.

As for Mallett, he has decided to pay the tax penalty this year for not having health insurance and continue evaluating his options. “It’s all so confusing,” he said.


Ken Mauldin 3 years, 1 month ago

Here's another family that lost health insurance coverage because a Democrat Congress and Democrat President shoved Obamacare down our throats.

Obama lied when he said you could keep your policy and your doctor.

Not a single Republican in the House or Senate voted for this mess. We should all remember that the Democrats are 100% responsible for the passage of Obamacare the next time we step into a voting booth.


john bailey 3 years ago

just one of many for the fearless leader.....sad and pathetic....transparent my back side....


beverly lemons 3 years ago

I am so glad to finally have access to health insurance that is affordable and effective. As a self-employed woman, the AFA is crucial. Because of Obamacare, I have health insurance for the first time in years.


beverly lemons 3 years ago

You're lying. I was never eligible for medicaid or any other programs. Many people just like me have gone without healthcare until now.

No one has stolen anything, and no one owes you an apology. If you're without insurance at this point, it's all on you, not me, not Obama, and not the fault of the AHA.


Chris Hadlock 3 years ago

Wrong again Steve. Medicaid will NOT kick in until AFTER you have used up all of your assets. In bankruptcy you can keep your house and your car, but if the medical condition that you are suffering from keeps you from being able to work then you lose everything in order to qualify for Medicaid.

Anyone want to sign up for Steve's guaranteed Medicaid coverage? When you read his harsh opinion of how he lost his insurance due to the ACA, we all need to remember that he refuses to participate in the Exchange due to his political beliefs.

If Steve and everyone like him would get off their high horse and purchase their health insurance the way they are supposed to it would increase the number of people in the pools which decreases premiums in a direct actuarial relationship.

Remember math in High School Steve? Do you need me to explain actuarial tables and how they affect the overall risk in the pool? You seem to have gone heavy of the climate science but missed out on some of your math fundamentals.


jerry carlton 3 years ago

people that got shafted 5 people happy 1.


Jason Krueger 3 years ago

I have no interest in debating your ideology as it is quite clear you are set in your belief system. What I am a bit confused on is your insistence regarding Medicaid eligibility. Based on the link you provided eligibility is based on your family's income level. If I am reading it correctly, a family of four is eligible for Medicaid if their income is less than 133% of the federal poverty level (or $39,501.00). Am I wrong in this understanding? Do you consider this an "acceptable" medical safety-net for the US population?


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