Insured Americans are using fewer medical services, raising questions about whether patients are consuming less health care as they pick up a greater share of the costs.
The drop in usage is showing up as health-care companies report financial results. Insurers, lab-testing companies, hospitals and doctor-billing concerns say that patient visits, drug prescriptions and procedures were down in the second quarter from year-ago levels.
"People just aren't using health-care like they have," said Wayne DeVeydt, WellPoint Inc.'s chief financial officer, in an interview Wednesday. "Utilization is lower than we expected, and it's unusual."
Others say that consumers are beginning to forgo elective procedures like knee replacements. "We have a very weak economy and it's just a different environment for the elective parts of health care," said Paul Ginsburg, a health economist who runs the Center for Studying Health System Change and has been analyzing health-company earnings. But "this could go beyond the recession. Being a less aggressive consumer of health care is here to stay."
Continued weak demand could eventually put downward pressure on spiralling health-care costs, a long-sought goal of policy makers. It could also force insurers to lower premiums.
The new trend comes amid a broader drop in health-care use as more Americans lose their jobs and their health insurance. Such cutbacks have happened before in recessions, but the drop seems to be more pronounced this time, industry analysts say.
More Americans also are buying high-deductible health plans that force them to bear more of the upfront costs for health services. Some 18 million Americans bought high-deductible plans this year, compared with 13 million last year, according to Paul Mango, a director at consulting firm McKinsey & Co.