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Diabetes Microvascular Disease Diagnosis and Treatment After High-Deductible Health Plan Enrollment

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posted on 29.09.2021, 18:23 by J. Frank Wharam, Jamie Wallace, Stephanie Argetsinger, Fang Zhang, Christine Y. Lu, Tomasz P. Stryjewski, Dennis Ross-Degnan, Joseph P. Newhouse
Objective: The Affordable Care Act mandates that primary preventive services have no out-of-pocket costs but does not exempt secondary prevention from out-of-pocket costs. Most commercially insured patients with diabetes have high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) that subject key microvascular disease-related services to high out-of-pocket costs. Brief treatment delays can significantly worsen microvascular disease outcomes.

Research Design and Methods: This cohort study used a large national commercial (and Medicare Advantage) health insurance claims dataset to examine matched groups before and after an insurance design change. The study group included 50,790 patients with diabetes who were continuously enrolled in low-deductible (<$500) health plans during a baseline year followed by up to 4 years in high-deductible (≥$1000) plans after an employer-mandated switch. HDHPs had low out-of-pocket costs for nephropathy screening but not retinopathy screening. A matched control group included 335,178 patients with diabetes who were contemporaneously enrolled in low-deductible plans. Measures included time to first detected microvascular disease screening, severe microvascular disease diagnosis, vision loss diagnosis/treatment, and renal function loss diagnosis/treatment.

Results: HDHP enrollment was associated with relative delays in retinopathy screening (0.7 months, 95% confidence interval: [0.4-1.0]), severe retinopathy diagnosis (2.9 months, [0.5-5.3]), and vision loss diagnosis/treatment (3.8 months, [1.2-6.3]). Nephropathy-associated measures did not change to a statistically significant degree among HDHP members relative to controls at follow up.

Conclusions: People with diabetes in HDHPs experienced delayed retinopathy diagnosis and vision loss diagnosis/treatment of up to 3.8 months compared with low-deductible plan enrollees. Findings raise concerns about visual health among HDHP members and call attention to discrepancies in Affordable Care Act cost sharing exemptions.


This work was supported by grant R01DK100304 (PI: Wharam) from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and grant 1P30-DK092924 from the NIDDK Health Delivery Systems Center for Diabetes Translational Research. The funder had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript; and decision to submit the manuscript for publication.