Introducing the “Rational Consumer”

Long have we heard that we need to make patients more like consumers in health care. Consumer-directed health care will … (insert promise here).

Adam Hanft at FastCompany blogs the return of the “rational consumer” (go read the post here, its biting wit is worth your time)

Consumers are willing, if not anxious, to spend more for brands that transcend the narrow benefits of functional utility – see Virginia Postrel’s “The Substance of Style.” Price sensitivity is out. Sensibility sensitivity is in. Consumers seek to wrap themselves in brands that offer up a cozy, self-reinforcing blanket of hipness and coolness. It’s a co-dependency of cues and semaphores, a mutual acknowledgment that brand and user are in on the game.

Well guess what? You’ve seen what happened to Starbucks sales and its stock during the last quarter. It was more than a mere froth of bad news, bringing Howard Schultz back into the CEO position to recover the missing mojo. Meanwhile, McDonalds is getting into the pricey coffee space, with their own McBaristas. And just last week, I read that — sacre bleue – Starbucks is testing a $1 cup of Joe, a stunning capitulation.

USA Today had a story earlier this week on employers who were dropping group health insurance plans and replacing them with monthly stipends to help individuals purchase insurance on their own. Among others:

Nick Trikolas plans to drop health insurance for his employees and give them money to buy their own coverage. He says doing so will put him in the vanguard of a movement by employers searching for answers to rising health costs.

The Wall Street Journal had a story as well:

So instead of providing group insurance, Mr. Martin is offering allowances — such as contributions to health-savings accounts, or HSAs — to employees who buy their own coverage in the individual market. Other small and medium-size employers are also providing stipends to workers who buy their own coverage through similar defined contribution programs.

Most insurees still receive coverage through their employers but we have all read about rising premiums that are forcing companies to rethink their benefit offerings. Never mind that when companies drop unaffordable insurance for employees and force them into the individual insurance market, the affordability (lack-there-of) of similar benefits does not change–it’s just passed onto the employee. Regardless, (this cliche is oft and over used) it is what it is.

In this atmosphere of change, this push for change, difficult choices will have to be made. And if sustainable change is to be made, we may very well have to rethink our views on health insurance. It is likely that any drastic reform means big changes in the insurance market. And that change could mean individual insurance plans for all.

If that’s the case, I introduce to you, health services industry, the “Rational Consumer.” A consumer that asks about the prices of procedures, compares treatment options, foregos pharmaceutical cures, decides against a trip to the emergency room…the list could go on and on.

It could be a good thing. A game-changing thing.

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