Consumer-driven health plans hit women harder

High-deductible plans may cost women much more than they cost men, according to a new study.

Published April 6, 2007 6:19PM (EDT)

As a Type 1 diabetic, I already knew that health insurance deductibles sucked -- but it never occurred to me that they suck more if you're a woman. That's what a new study from Harvard Medical School researchers says, according to the Associated Press.

According to the AP, the study reports that in consumer-driven health plans -- such as health savings accounts and health reimbursement accounts -- the median expense for men under 45 was less than $500. The cost for women? Over $1,200.

The reason for this discrepancy is that women need services that men do not, like mammograms, cervical cancer vaccines, Pap tests, birth control and pregnancy-related care, says Steffie Woolhandler, the lead author of the study (and an advocate for a single-payer health insurance system). Woolhandler puts things bluntly. "High-deductible plans punish women for having breasts and uteruses and having babies," the AP quotes her as saying. "When an employer switches all his employees into a consumer-driven health plan, it's the same as giving all the women a $1,000 pay cut, on average, because women on average have $1,000 more in health costs than men."

Since fewer than 3 percent of Americans currently use consumer-driven health plans like these, this study might not seem like a big deal -- that is, until you remember that consumer-driven health plans are being pushed by some lawmakers as a way to curb healthcare costs. (The argument is that if people are forced to shop for their insurance and pay a greater percentage of their initial medical bills, they'll be more frugal.)

Some people still question the study's validity, pointing out that not all plans are designed in the same way -- as the AP explains, "Many don't make employees responsible for vaccinations or other preventative health services, and many cover varying degrees of initial costs." In other words, it'd be rash to jump to the conclusion that every single consumer-driven health plan would result in the level of discrepancy found by the study.

But still, this was no small study -- it examined the 2003 federal Medical Expenditure Survey of nearly 33,000 people. And considering the fact that there are certain female-only, expensive conditions out there that women will have regardless of preventive care (like, uh, pregnancy), it's worth making this gender discrepancy an issue in America's ongoing debate about health insurance.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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