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Original Investigation |

Total Direct Medical Expenses and Characteristics of Privately Insured Adolescents Who Incur High Costs Online Only

Susan H. Gray, MD1,2; Emily K. Trudell, MPH3; S. Jean Emans, MD1,2; Elizabeth R. Woods, MD, MPH1,2; Jay G. Berry, MD, MPH2,4; Louis Vernacchio, MD, MSc2,3,4
[+] Author Affiliations
1Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts
2Department of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
3The Pediatric Physicians’ Organization at Children’s, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts
4Division of General Pediatrics, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts
JAMA Pediatr. 2015;169(10):e152682. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.2682.
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Importance  Accountable care payment models aim to reduce total direct medical expenses for high-cost patients through improved quality of care and preventive health services. Little is known about health care expenditures of privately insured adolescents, especially those who incur high costs.

Objectives  To assess health care expenditures for high-cost adolescents and to describe the patient characteristics associated with high medical costs.

Design, Setting, and Participants  A retrospective cohort analysis was conducted of data from January 1 to December 31, 2012, of 13 103 privately insured adolescents aged 13 to 21 years (mean [SD] age, 16.3 [2.4] years; 6764 [51.6%] males) at 82 independent pediatric primary care practices in Massachusetts. Analysis was conducted from April 1, 2014, to April 1, 2015.

Main Outcomes and Measures  We compared demographic (age, sex, median income by zip code) and clinical (obesity, behavioral health problem, complex chronic condition) characteristics between high-cost (top 1%) and non–high-cost adolescents. We assigned high-cost adolescents to clinical categories using software from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to describe clinically relevant patterns of spending.

Results  Total direct medical expenses were $41.2 million for the entire cohort and a median $1167 per patient. A total of 132 (1.0%) patients with the highest costs accounted for 23.6% of expenses of the cohort, with a median $52 577 per patient. Mental health disorders were the most common diagnosis in high-cost patients; 78 (59.1%) of these patients had at least 1 behavioral health diagnosis. Pharmacy costs accounted for 28.4% of total direct medical expenses of high-cost patients; primary care accounted for 1.0%. Characteristics associated with being a high-cost patient included having 1 complex chronic condition (relative risk [RR], 6.5; 95% CI, 4.7-9.0), having 2 or more complex chronic conditions (RR, 23.5; 95% CI, 14.2-39.1), having any behavioral health diagnosis (RR, 3.6; 95% CI, 2.6-5.1), and obesity (RR, 2.0; 95% CI, 1.3-3.0).

Conclusions and Relevance  Total direct medical expenses for privately insured high-cost adolescents are associated with medical complexity, mental health conditions, and obesity. Cost reduction strategies in similar populations should be tailored to these cost drivers.

Figures in this Article


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Percentage of Total Direct Medical Expenses Used by Health Care Service for High-Cost vs Non–High-Cost Adolescents

Inpatient care accounts for the greatest proportion of spending in high-cost adolescents, whereas specialist outpatient care represents the greatest proportion of spending in non–high-cost adolescents. PCP indicates primary care provider.

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