NU Online News Service, June 22, 2004, 3:43 p.m. EDT

Aetna Inc., Hartford, says its account-based health plans seem to be succeeding at holding down medical claims costs.[@@]

Aetna began enrolling large numbers of employees in its HealthFund defined contribution program plans in 2003. The plans combine high-deductible health coverage with personal health accounts.

Aetna compared claims for about 14,500 workers who belonged to the HealthFund plans throughout 2003 with claims for the same workers for 2002, when the workers were in conventional health plans.

Medical costs increased an average of only 3.7% between 2002 and 2003 for the workers in the HealthFund plans, while medical costs increased more than 10% for the workers in the conventional plans, Aetna says.

At an aluminum manufacturer that required all employees to join the HealthFund program, medical costs fell 11%.

The HealthFund program appeared to hold down cost increases mainly by reducing prescription drug use, claims for visits to primary care doctors, and claims for use of outpatient hospital services. Visits to emergency rooms and specialists decreased only 3%, Aetna reports.

Aetna reports that indicators for HealthFund program members’ use of preventive care were about the same as or better than the indicators for conventional plan members’ use of preventive care.

One indicator, the likelihood that an adult member would get a preventive exam, increased 23% for HealthFund program members and only 8% for members of ordinary health plans, Aetna says.