Economics - General Medicaid/Medicare Pharmaceuticals

Medicare Part D and Switching Costs

It’s decision time for Medicare Part D purchasers. Seniors have until December 31st to make their Part D choice and this decision is not a painless one.

The Marketplace Money radio program recently reported (‘Deciphering Part D‘) that “the most popular policies have increased their prices substantially, especially Humana and United Healthcare, the ones that most of the people are in. Some of the policies’ prices have even doubled. So even though the average prices have only increased by about 14 percent, if you’re in one of the more popular plans, it’s really important to look at what your costs will be next year because you may want to change to a different policy.”

How can some plans double their prices yet still retain customers? Neo-classical economists would say that if the price of insurance at one company would rise, all seniors would switch to the cheaper plan and there would be a competitive equilibrium at the market price. Yet in the presence of switching costs, the insurance companies may be able to raise prices significantly without losing many customers.

Switching costs for Medicare Part D include the time consuming process of selecting from the hundreds of Medicare Part D plans. Children of seniors may also have to aid their parents in selecting a plan. Thus, if the price of my Part D insurance went up 16% while the rest of the plans went up 14%, I may decide to pay the higher price since I do not want to incur the search costs of finding a new Medicare Part D plan.

Companies such as Humana and UnitedHealth knew this would be the case. In the first year of Part D, these companies likely under-priced their insurance plans to attract customers. Once the customers had settled on their policies, they could more easily raise prices.

Despite the market inefficiencies caused by switching costs, this is not a reason to completely abandon a free market system. If the price increases of an individual company get too high, they will eventually outweigh the switching cost and the senior will move to a new plan. Further, information technology advances can help reduce switching costs. For instance, Medicare has a Prescription Drug Plan Finder that helps to estimate the cost of different plans depending on which prescriptions you are taking.