TJ: Insurers say yes, but we really don’t know. There is evidence that people with HSAs from their employers are more likely to participate in exercise, stress management, and nutrition programs. They are also more likely to seek out health information and keep track of their health care expenses. They are healthier and use fewer medical services. Advocates of these plans believe that people in consumer-driven plans spend less money, and their employers save money. But an employer’s insurance premium may just be lower because employers are simply shifting costs to their workers. One study showed that, on the surface, these plans saved employers a lot of money. But when you look harder at the data, you see that the savings were largely attributable to healthier workers signing up for the consumer-driven plans, leaving the less healthy workers in more traditional plans.

TL: Can consumers really bargain with doctors for cheaper services?

TJ: It’s silly to believe that consumers bargaining with doctors and hospitals can bring down costs. It makes no sense. Even the insurers don’t believe that. It’s not going to happen. Consumers aren’t going to the hospital to drive a hard bargain. Medicare and insurance companies will always get a better deal.

TL: Is it reasonable to expect that consumers can bring down health care costs?

TJ: Relying on consumers to put the brakes on costs is problematic. The information is not there to allow them to do that, and if it were, consumers often would not be in a position to rationally process information. Successful cost control is much more likely to come from the government, or private payers saying that they are not going to pay for medical products and services that don’t work.

TL: Have consumer-driven policies hurt people’s health?

TJ: People in high deductible plans have a harder time getting care. They are more likely not to fill prescriptions or go to the doctor, and less likely to get the health care they need. A study by the RAND Corp. showed that consumers could not discriminate between non-essential care and necessary care, and they basically saved money by not going to the doctor.

TL: Do HSAs further health care equity?

TJ: No. HSAs definitely favor wealthier people. There’s pretty good evidence that where people have an option of an HSA plan, HSA plans are chosen more by wealthier employees. A significant number of these people are using them as a tax shelter for retirement. These plans protect neither the health nor financial security of people who are poor.

TL: Do they further a two-tier health care system?

TJ: More wealthy people use these plans; they get tax benefits and generous contributions to their HSAs. Lower income workers get high deductibles. That means health insurance may be affordable, but when you get sick, health care is not. Just because insurance is affordable doesn’t mean that someone can get affordable care. Consumer-driven plans just postpone the question of affordability. The wealthy can always afford their care. Poor people can’t.

TL: How do these plans affect the doctor-patient relationship?

TJ: The relationship between the patient and physician has traditionally been viewed as one of trust. Patients entrust themselves to their doctors, who have an obligation to put the patients’ interests first. At least, that’s the ideal. The vision for consumer-driven health plans assumes that the physician and other care providers are merchants and patients are consumers. So let the buyer beware. This change threatens the welfare of patients who now cannot trust their doctors to look after their medical needs. Trust is an important aspect of healing. If you approach your doctor as you would a used car dealer, he or she probably won’t be able to help you as much.

TL: What legal issues do these plans raise?

TJ: They raise a host of legal issues that we have not even begun to sort out. Does the duty of a doctor to secure informed consent to treatment now include an obligation to provide information about cost as well as risks and benefits? Might a doctor who withholds medically necessary care because a patient cannot afford to cover deductibles, coinsurance, and copayments be liable for malpractice, or for breaching a fiduciary obligation? Do state managed care bills of rights apply to insurers when they are deciding whether or not the cost of a service counts against a deductible? Are there any limits on how much a provider can charge a patient who is paying for a service out-of-pocket if both have not agreed on a price beforehand? (They almost never do.) Are insurers liable to patients or providers if they provide incorrect information in their quality rankings?

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.