High Deductibles are Associated With Severe Disease, Catastrophic Out-of-Pocket Payments for Emergency Surgical Conditions

Ann Surg. 2023 Oct 1;278(4):e667-e674. doi: 10.1097/SLA.0000000000005819. Epub 2023 Feb 10.


Background: Out-of-pocket spending has risen for individuals with private health insurance, yet little is known about the unintended consequences that high levels of cost-sharing may have on delayed clinical presentation and financial outcomes for common emergency surgical conditions.

Methods: In this retrospective analysis of claims data from a large commercial insurer (2016-2019), we identified adult inpatient admissions following emergency department presentation for common emergency surgical conditions (eg, appendicitis, cholecystitis, diverticulitis, and intestinal obstruction). Primary exposure of interest was enrollment in a high-deductible health insurance plan (HDHP). Our primary outcome was disease severity at presentation-determined using ICD-10-CM diagnoses codes and based on validated measures of anatomic severity (eg, perforation, abscess, diffuse peritonitis). Our secondary outcome was catastrophic out-of-pocket spending, defined by the World Health Organization as out-of-pocket spending >10% of annual income.

Results: Among 43,516 patients [mean age 48.4 (SD: 11.9) years; 51% female], 41% were enrolled HDHPs. Despite being younger, healthier, wealthier, and more educated, HDHP enrollees were more likely to present with more severe disease (28.5% vs 21.3%, P <0.001; odds ratio (OR): 1.34, 95% CI: 1.28-1.42]); even after adjusting for relevant demographics (adjusted OR: 1.23, 95% CI: 1.18-1.31). HDHP enrollees were also more likely to incur 30-day out-of-pocket spending that exceeded 10% of annual income (20.8% vs 6.4%, adjusted OR: 3.93, 95% CI: 3.65-4.24). Lower-income patients, Black patients, and Hispanic patients were at highest risk of financial strain.

Conclusions: For privately insured patients presenting with common surgical emergencies, high-deductible health plans are associated with increased disease severity at admission and a greater financial burden after discharge-especially for vulnerable populations. Strategies are needed to improve financial risk protection for common surgical emergencies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Deductibles and Coinsurance*
  • Emergencies
  • Female
  • Health Expenditures*
  • Humans
  • Insurance, Health
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Retrospective Studies