updated 2/16/2011 2:52:47 PM ET 2011-02-16T19:52:47

Health insurance plan changes that shift more costs to consumers are playing a larger role in curbing healthcare use, according to a report from Moody's Investors Service.

Several health insurers have said use moderated or slowed over the final months of 2010, which helped push down what they paid for claims and improved their financial performances. Insurers and analysts covering the sector have said health care use fell in 2010 in part because flu cases dropped to unusually low levels and consumers tend to cut back on care during a sluggish economy.

They also say weather played a role in driving down or delaying use by keeping people from getting to the doctor's office, but they expect use to return to normal levels in 2011.

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However, Moody's said Wednesday that changes in benefit designs are "spurring a more permanent cultural shift in consumer behavior."

"This will continue to constrain healthcare demand even as the economy recovers," the report said.

Moody's noted that more employers are using high-deductible plans or higher co-payments to shift costs to people covered under their plans. They're also doing more to promote to promote healthy lifestyles and create incentives to slow costs.

Insurers also are taking steps to limit coverage or provide "reimbursement disincentives" for some treatments where a firm case for good results has not been established, the report said.

"Growth in demand for healthcare services slowed more than we expected during 2010, and we don't think the pace of growth will easily recover to levels seen before the economic downturn, particularly over the next one to two years," Moody's said.

Moody's said slower growth in demand will be a positive for insurers and a negative for hospitals, medical device makers and some drug companies.

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