updated 5/30/2006 7:21:44 PM ET 2006-05-30T23:21:44

Health insurance policies that require consumers to pay for all their initial medical expenses are becoming a popular option as Americans try to cut down on their insurance costs.

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The number of people purchasing high-deductible plans jumped from about 3 million in January 2005 to as much as 6 million by January 2006, the Government Accountability Office said Tuesday.

Individuals purchasing such policies usually pay lower monthly premiums because they agree to bear a greater share of the cost of their health care. The policies are often coupled with health savings accounts, which allow consumers to set aside money tax free, and they can then use that money to pay for medical expenses not picked up by the insurer or to save it for retirement.

The policies paired with health savings accounts must have a minimum deductible of $1,050 for single coverage and $2,100 for family coverage. The Bush administration has aggressively pushed to make such accounts more popular by calling for further tax breaks for those who open them.

Critics of the administration's proposals say the accounts work best for younger, healthier workers, and they worry that employers are using high-deductible plans to shift costs to employees.

The GAO said that the rising cost of health care coverage is the primary reason more employers offer the plans, and it noted that analysts believe more employers will join the trend if the costs of insurance continues rising significantly.

The number of employers offering high-deductible insurance plans to their workers jumped from just 1 percent in 2004 to about 4 percent in 2005, the GAO noted.

Mohit Ghose, spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, a trade group representing insurers, said members had worked hard in the past year to make health savings accounts and the high-deductible plans more accessible. He said about 30 percent of those purchasing the products were previously uninsured.

"That leads us to one conclusion, which is that this product will appeal to certain types of consumers," Ghose said. "And what's important in the long run is to have as much choice as possible so that consumers and their employers can make the coverage decision that suits them best."

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