- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

Patients are expected to make more of their own health care decisions as they take on a larger share of the costs, a recent health policy study found.

Consumers are more inclined to, among other things, get second opinions from the Internet and shop for more flexible health plans, according to the study released last week by the National Center for Policy Analysis, a Dallas think tank that promotes private enterprise.

“We have more access and choices when it comes to health care. It has allowed patients today to be more self-reliant than they were in the past,” said Devon Herrick, senior fellow and author of the study.

Part of the change in patients has come from companies passing on more of their health insurance costs to consumers, Mr. Herrick said.

Workers are expected to see a 12 percent increase in their health insurance costs this year and an average 2 percent reduction in their benefit levels, according to the most recent data from global consulting firm Towers Perrin.

That shift in costs has increased sales of over-the-counter drugs and self-diagnostic tests and boosted enrollment in health savings accounts, according to Mr. Herrick’s study, which surveyed several hundred medical journals and industry reports for the past five years.

Sales of self-diagnostic tests have more than tripled from $750 million in 1992 to $2.8 billion in 2002, the study found.

Enrollees in health savings accounts, high-deductible insurance plans that allow flexible medical spending through savings accounts, shot up from 438,000 in September to 1.03 million at the end of March, according to a May report by a Washington health-insurer trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans.

“This is the way the health system is going,” said Dr. Mary Frank, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, a Leawood, Kan., trade association.

“Patients assuming responsibility for their health is really a good thing, but they need to continue getting consultations from their physician,” she said.

Dr. Frank, a family doctor in Rohnert Park, Calif., said more of her patients are using the Internet to get their health information and coming to her with follow-up questions.

About 80 percent of adult Internet users, estimated be to 93 million in 2003, had searched for health information online — with most looking for information about specific diseases, the study said.

Consumers also are searching for prescription drug information, prompted by extensive direct-to-consumer advertising, Mr. Herrick said.

Eighty-nine prescription drugs have been released in over-the-counter forms from 1975 to 2003, the study said.

Health care, Canadian style

• Canada’s Supreme Court yesterday struck down a Quebec law that banned private health insurance for services covered by Medicare, the country’s universal health care system.

The court voted 4-3 to overturn a lower court ruling, saying the ban violates Quebec’s constitution by denying people vital health care and endangering their lives.

The ruling could affect Canada’s public health care system, which has been beset by a doctor shortage and long waits for appointments.

Health Care appears Fridays. Call Marguerite Higgins at 202/636-4892 or e-mail her at mhiggins@washingtontimes.com.

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