An important question in health services research is the estimation of the proportion of medical expenditures that exceed a given threshold. Typically, medical expenditures present highly skewed, heavy tailed distributions, for which a) simple variable transformations are insufficient to achieve a tractable low- dimensional parametric form and b) nonparametric methods are not efficient in estimating exceedance probabilities for large thresholds. Motivated by this context, in this paper we propose a general Bayesian approach for the estimation of tail probabilities of heavy-tailed distributions,based on a mixture of gamma distributions in which the mixing occurs over the shape parameter. This family provides a flexible and novel approach for modeling heavy-tailed distributions, it is computationally efficient, and it only requires to specify a prior distribution for a single parameter. By carrying out simulation studies, we compare our approach with commonly used methods, such as the log-normal model and non parametric alternatives. We found that the mixture-gamma model significantly improves predictive performance in estimating tail probabilities, compared to these alternatives. We also applied our method to the Medical Current Beneficiary Survey (MCBS), for which we estimate the probability of exceeding a given hospitalization cost for smoking attributable diseases. The R software that implements the method is available from the authors.


Statistical Models