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Health insurance is insurance that pays for medical expenses. It is sometimes used more broadly to include insurance covering disability or long-term nursing or custodial care needs. It may be provided through a government-sponsored social insurance program, or from private insurance companies. It may be purchased on a group basis (e.g., by a firm to cover its employees) or purchased by individual consumers. In each case, the covered groups or individuals pay premiums or taxes to help protect themselves from high or unexpected healthcare expenses. Similar benefits paying for medical expenses may also be provided through social welfare programs funded by the government.
By estimating the overall risk of healthcare expenses, a routine finance structure (such as a monthly premium or annual tax) can be developed, ensuring that money is available to pay for the healthcare benefits specified in the insurance agreement. The benefit is administered by a central organization such as a government agency, private business, or not-for-profit entity.
History and evolution
The concept of health insurance was proposed in 1694 by Hugh the Elder Chamberlen from the Peter Chamberlen family. In the late 19th century, "accident insurance" began to be available, which operated much like modern disability insurance. This payment model continued until the start of the 20th century in some jurisdictions (like California), where all laws regulating health insurance actually referred to disability insurance.
Accident insurance was first offered in the United States by the Franklin Health Assurance Company of Massachusetts. This firm, founded in 1850, offered insurance against injuries arising from railroad and steamboat accidents. Sixty organizations were offering accident insurance in the U.S. by 1866, but the industry consolidated rapidly soon thereafter. While there were earlier experiments, the origins of sickness coverage in the U.S. effectively date from 1890. The first employer-sponsored group disability policy was issued in 1911.
Before the development of medical expense insurance, patients were expected to pay all other health care costs out of their own pockets, under what is known as the fee-for-service business model. During the middle to late 20th century, traditional disability insurance evolved into modern health insurance programs. Today, most comprehensive private health insurance programs cover the cost of routine, preventive, and emergency health care procedures, and most prescription drugs, but this was not always the case.
Hospital and medical expense policies were introduced during the first half of the 20th century. During the 1920s, individual hospitals began offering services to individuals on a pre-paid basis, eventually leading to the development of Blue Cross organizations. The predecessors of today's Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) originated beginning in 1929, through the 1930s and on during World War II.
How it works
A health insurance policy is a contract between an insurance company and an individual or his sponsor (e.g. an employer). The contract can be renewable annually or monthly. The type and amount of health care costs that will be covered by the health insurance company are specified in advance, in the member contract or "Evidence of Coverage" booklet. The individual insurered person's obligations may take several forms:
Premium: The amount the policy-holder or his sponsor (e.g. an employer) pays to the health plan each month to purchase health coverage.
Deductible: The amount that the insured must pay out-of-pocket before the health insurer pays its share. For example, a policy-holder might have to pay a $500 deductible per year, before any of their health care is covered by the health insurer. It may take several doctor's visits or prescription refills before the insured person reaches the deductible and the insurance company starts to pay for care.
Copayment: The amount that the insured person must pay out of pocket before the health insurer pays for a particular visit or service. For example, an insured person might pay a $45 copayment for a doctor's visit, or to obtain a prescription. A copayment must be paid each time a particular service is obtained.
Coinsurance: Instead of, or in addition to, paying a fixed amount up front (a copayment), the co-insurance is a percentage of the total cost that insured person may also pay. For example, the member might have to pay 20% of the cost of a surgery over and above a co-payment, while the insurance company pays the other 80%. If there is an upper limit on coinsurance, the policy-holder could end up owing very little, or a great deal, depending on the actual costs of the services they obtain.
Exclusions: Not all services are covered. The insured person is generally expected to pay the full cost of non-covered services out of their own pocket.
Coverage limits: Some health insurance policies only pay for health care up to a certain dollar amount. The insured person may be expected to pay any charges in excess of the health plan's maximum payment for a specific service. In addition, some insurance company schemes have annual or lifetime coverage maximums. In these cases, the health plan will stop payment when they reach the benefit maximum, and the policy-holder must pay all remaining costs.
Out-of-pocket maximums: Similar to coverage limits, except that in this case, the insured person's payment obligation ends when they reach the out-of-pocket maximum, and the health company pays all further covered costs. Out-of-pocket maximums can be limited to a specific benefit category (such as prescription drugs) or can apply to all coverage provided during a specific benefit year.
Capitation: An amount paid by an insurer to a health care provider, for which the provider agrees to treat all members of the insurer.
In-Network Provider: (U.S. term) A health care provider on a list of providers preselected by the insurer. The insurer will offer discounted coinsurance or copayments, or additional benefits, to a plan member to see an in-network provider. Generally, providers in network are providers who have a contract with the insurer to accept rates further discounted from the "usual and customary" charges the insurer pays to out-of-network providers.
Prior Authorization: A certification or authorization that an insurer provides prior to medical service occurring. Obtaining an authorization means that the insurer is obligated to pay for the service, assume it matches what was authorized. Many smaller, routine services do not require authorization.
Explanation of Benefits: A document sent by an insurer to a patient explaining what was covered for a medical service, and how they arrived at the payment amount and patient responsibility amount.
Prescription drug plans are a form of insurance offered through some employer benefit plans in the U.S., where the patient pays a copayment and the prescription drug insurance part or all of the balance for drugs covered in the formulary of the plan.
Some, if not most, health care providers in the United States will agree to bill the insurance company if patients are willing to sign an agreement that they will be responsible for the amount that the insurance company doesn't pay. The insurance company pays out of network providers according to "reasonable and customary" charges, which may be less than the provider's usual fee. The provider may also have a separate contract with the insurer to accept what amounts to a discounted rate or capitation to the provider's standard charges. It generally costs the patient less to use an in-network provider.
Health plan vs. health insurance
Historically, HMOs tended to use the term "health plan", while commercial insurance companies used the term "health insurance". A health plan can also refer to a subscription-based medical care arrangement offered through HMOs, preferred provider organizations, or point of service plans. These plans are similar to pre-paid dental, pre-paid legal, and pre-paid vision plans. Pre-paid health plans typically pay for a fixed number of services (for instance, $300 in preventive care, a certain number of days of hospice care or care in a skilled nursing facility, a fixed number of home health visits, a fixed number of spinal manipulation charges, etc.) The services offered are usually at the discretion of a utilization review nurse who is often contracted through the managed care entity providing the subscription health plan. This determination may be made either prior to or after hospital admission (concurrent utilization review).
Comprehensive vs. scheduled
Comprehensive health insurance pays a percentage of the cost of hospital and physician charges after a deductible (usually applies to hospital charges) or a co-pay (usually applies to physician charges, but may apply to some hospital services) is met by the insured. These plans are generally expensive because of the high potential benefit payout - $1,000,000 to 5,000,000 is common - and because of the vast array of covered benefits.
Scheduled health insurance plans are not meant to replace a traditional comprehensive health insurance plans and are more of a basic policy providing access to day-to-day health care such as going to the doctor or getting a prescription drug. In recent years, these plans have taken the name mini-med plans or association plans. These plans may provide benefits for hospitalization and surgical, but these benefits will be limited. Scheduled plans are not meant to be effective for catastrophic events. These plans cost much less than comprehensive health insurance. They generally pay limited benefits amounts directly to the service provider, and payments are based upon the plan's "schedule of benefits". Annual benefits maximums for a typical scheduled health insurance plan may range from $1,000 to $25,000.
Inherent problems with multiple insurance funds and optional insurance
The basic concept of insurance, as described by Wikipedia's Insurance article, is population solidarity. There are inherent risks in a population but the population absorbs the cost of risks to an individual by spreading the impact of incurred costs amongst the insured population. However, if the population is split into insured and uninsured groups, or into selectively groups (as with private insurance with pre-insurance selection either by the insurance company or the insured) the concept of population solidarity breaks down. Insurance systems must then typically deal with two inherent challenges: adverse selection and ex-post moral hazard.
Some national systems with compulsory insurance utilize systems such as risk equalization and community rating to overcome these inherent problems. Proponents of single-payer health care in the United States aim to provide the population of the country with health care from a single fund and thus avoid problems and costs associated with adverse selection, moral hazard, and private profiteering from insurance.
Although the general principle of insurance is population solidarity, the economic behavior of insurance companies that are run for profit often seems to go against this very principle. This is exemplified in an Urban Institute paper which argues that the whole medical insurance industry in the United States is geared to managing two groups that it tries to keep from overlapping: the group of people who are healthy and will make only very small claims as policy holders (which it seeks to attract), and the group of people who will make above average claims (which the companies will do all they can to avoid paying out for - by exclusions, higher co-pay rates, etc). The authors say that these activities are antithetical to the whole concept of insurance (which is that the fortunate healthy should meet the health care costs of the unfortunately ill). The paper argues that American insurers are so focused on the process of managing these groups that they forget that their primary aim ought to be to buy cost-effective, efficiently delivered care on behalf of their clients . On the other hand, insurance companies might argue that they are trying to achieve fairness to policy holders given the fact that the split nature of the market means that risks are not evenly distributed between the various funds.
Insurance companies use the term "adverse selection" to describe the tendency for only those who will benefit from insurance to buy it. Specifically when talking about health insurance, unhealthy people are more likely to purchase health insurance because they anticipate large medical bills. On the other side, people who consider themselves to be reasonably healthy may decide that medical insurance is an unnecessary expense; if they see the doctor once a year that's much better than making monthly insurance payments.
The fundamental concept of insurance is that it balances costs across a large, random sample of individuals (see risk pool). For instance, an insurance company has a pool of 1000 randomly selected subscribers, each paying $100 per month. One person becomes very ill while the others stay healthy, allowing the insurance company to use the money paid by the healthy people to pay for the treatment costs of the sick person. However, when the pool is self-selecting rather than random, as is the case with individuals seeking to purchase health insurance directly, adverse selection is a greater concern. A disproportionate share of health care spending is attributable to individuals with high health care costs. In the U.S. the 1% of the population with the highest spending accounted for 27% of aggregate health care spending in 1996. The highest-spending 5% of the population accounted for more than half of all spending. These patterns were stable through the 1970s and 1980s, and some data suggest that they may have been typical of the mid-to-early 20th century as well. A few individuals have extremely high medical expenses, in extreme cases totaling a half million dollars or more. Adverse selection could leave an insurance company with primarily sick subscribers and no way to balance out the cost of their medical expenses with a large number of healthy subscribers.
Because of adverse selection, insurance companies employ medical underwriting, using a patient's medical history to screen out those whose pre-existing medical conditions pose too great a risk for the risk pool. Before buying health insurance, a person typically fills out a comprehensive medical history form that asks whether the person smokes, how much the person weighs, whether the person has been treated for any of a long list of diseases and so on. In general, those who present large financial burdens are denied coverage or charged high premiums to compensate. One large U.S. industry survey found that roughly 13 percent of applicants for comprehensive, individually purchased health insurance who went through the medical underwriting in 2004 were denied coverage. Declination rates increased significantly with age, rising from 5 percent for individuals 18 and under to just under a third for individuals aged 60 to 64. Among those who were offered coverage, the study found that 76% received offers at standard premium rates, and 22% were offered higher rates. On the other side, applicants can get discounts if they do not smoke and are healthy.
Moral hazard occurs when an insurer and a consumer enter into a contract under symmetric information, but one party takes action, not taken into account in the contract, which changes the value of the insurance. A common example of moral hazard is third-party payment-when the parties involved in making a decision are not responsible for bearing costs arising from the decision. An example is where doctors and insured patients agree to extra tests which may or may not be necessary. Doctors benefit by avoiding possible malpractice suits, and patients benefit by gaining increased certainty of their medical condition. The cost of these extra tests is borne by the insurance company, which may have had little say in the decision. Co-payments, deductibles, and less generous insurance for services with more elastic demand attempt to combat moral hazard, as they hold the consumer responsible.
Other factors affecting insurance prices
A recent study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers examining the drivers of rising health care costs in the U.S. pointed to increased utilization created by increased consumer demand, new treatments, and more intensive diagnostic testing, as the most significant driver. People in developed countries are living longer. The population of those countries is aging, and a larger group of senior citizens requires more intensive medical care than a young healthier population. Advances in medicine and medical technology can also increase the cost of medical treatment. Lifestyle-related factors can increase utilization and therefore insurance prices, such as: increases in obesity caused by insufficient exercise and unhealthy food choices; excessive alcohol use, smoking, and use of street drugs. Other factors noted by the PWC study included the movement to broader-access plans, higher-priced technologies, and cost-shifting from Medicaid and the uninsured to private payers.
The United States mixed economy health care system relies heavily on private (for profit) and not-for-profit health insurance, which is the primary source of coverage for most Americans. According to the United States Census Bureau, approximately 84% of Americans have health insurance; some 60% obtain it through an employer, while about 9% purchase it directly. Various government agencies provide coverage to about 27% of Americans (there is some overlap in these figures).
Public programs provide the primary source of coverage for most seniors citizens and for low-income children and families who meet certain eligibility requirements. The primary public programs are Medicare, a federal social insurance program for seniors and certain disabled individuals, Medicaid, funded jointly by the federal government and states but administered at the state level, which covers certain very low income children and their families, and SCHIP, also a federal-state partnership that serves certain children and families who do not qualify for Medicaid but who cannot afford private coverage. Other public programs include military health benefits provided through TRICARE and the Veterans Health Administration and benefits provided through the Indian Health Service. Some states have additional programs for low-income individuals.
In 2006, there were 47 million people in the United States (16% of the population) who were without health insurance for at least part of that year. About 37% of the uninsured live in households with an income over $50,000.
In 2004, U.S. health insurers directly employed almost 470,000 people at an average salary of $61,409. (As of the fourth quarter of 2007, the total U.S. labor force stood at 153.6 million, of whom 146.3 million were employed. Employment related to all forms of insurance totaled 2.3 million. Mean annual earnings for full-time civilian workers as of June 2006 were $41,231; median earnings were $33,634.) The insurance industry also represents a significant lobbying group in the United States. For 2008 insurance was the 8th among industries in political contributions to members of Congress, giving $28,654,121, of which 51% was given to Democrats and 49% to Republicans, with the top recipient of insurance industry contributions being Senator John McCain (R-AZ). The leading contributor from the insurance industry - as measured by total political contributions - was AFLAC, Inc., which contributed $907,150 in 2007.
Notes and references
1.How Private Insurance Works: A Primer by Gary Claxton, Institution for Health Care Research and Policy, Georgetown University, on behalf of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
2.Howstuffworks: How Health Insurance Works.
3.Encarta: Health Insurance.
4.See California Insurance Code Section 106 (defining disability insurance). http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/cacodes/ins/100-124.5.html In 2001, the California Legislature added subdivision (b), which defines "health insurance" as "an individual or group disability insurance policy that provides coverage for hospital, medical, or surgical benefits."
5.a b Fundamentals of Health Insurance: Part A, Health Insurance Association of America, 1997, ISBN 1-879143-36-4.
6.Thomas P. O'Hare, "Individual Medical Expense Insurance," The American College, 2000, p. 7, ISBN 1-57996-025-1.
7.Managed Care: Integrating the Delivery and Financing of Health Care - Part A, Health Insurance Association of America, 1995, p. 9 ISBN 1-879143-26-1.
8.Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). "Questions and Answers About Health Insurance: A Consumer Guide." August 2007.
11."Comprehensive Health Insurance vs. Scheduled Health Insurance".
12."Mini Medical Plans On The Move".
13.From the Insurance Wikipedia article: This discussion is adapted from Mehr and Camack ?Principles of Insurance?, 6th edition, 1976, pp 34 - 37. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insurance#Principles_of_insurance
14.Holahan, John; Blumberg, Linda (2008). "Can a Public Insurance Plan Increase Competition and Lower the Costs of Health Reform?" (pdf). Urban Institute, Health Policy Center. http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/411762_public_insurance.pdf. Retrieved 2009-04-28. "?Competition in insurance markets is often about getting the lowest risk enrollees as opposed to competing on price and the efficient delivery of care.?"
15."Wading Through Medical Insurance Pools: A Primer," American Academy of Actuaries September 2006.
16.Marc L. Berk and Alan C. Monheit, "The Concentration Of Health Care Expenditures, Revisited", Health Affairs, Volume 20, Number 2, March/April 2001. Accessed February 27, 2008.
17.Marc L. Berk and Alan C. Monheit, "Datawatch: The Concentration Of Health Expenditures: An Update", Health Affairs, Winter 1992. Accessed February 27, 2008.
18."1997-1999 Group Medical Insurance Database and Analysis Report," Society of Actuaries, 2004.
19."The Bottom Line on Risk Classification in Individually Purchased Voluntary Medical Expense Insurance," American Academy of Actuaries, February 1999.
20.Teresa Chovan, Hannah Yoo and Tom Wildsmith, "Individual Health Insurance: A Comprehensive Survey of Affordability, Access, and Benefits" America?s Health Insurance Plans, August 2005.
21.Teresa Chovan, Hannah Yoo and Tom Wildsmith, Individual Health Insurance: A Comprehensive Survey of Affordability, Access, and Benefits, America?s Health Insurance Plans, Table 7, p. 11 (Note that the remainder, roughly 2%, received other types of offers, such as policies with condition waivers).
22.Task Force on Genetic Testing in Health Insurance, "Risk Classification in Individually Purchased Voluntary Medical Expense Insurance," American Academy of Actuaries, February 1999.
23.The Factors Fueling Rising Healthcare Costs 2006, PriceWaterhouseCoopers for America's Health Insurance Plans, 2006, accessed 2007-10-08.
24. Center for Sensible Finance. July 2009.
25.a b c "Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2006." U.S. Census Bureau. Issued August 2007.
26.U.S. Census Bureau, "CPS Health Insurance Definitions".
27."Health Insurance: Overview and Economic Impact in the States," America?s Health Insurance Plans, November 2007.
28.U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "THE EMPLOYMENT SITUATION: JANUARY 2008," February 1, 2008.
29.U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "National Compensation Survey: Occupational Wages in the United States, June 2006," June 2007.
30.The Center for Responsive Politics, Top Industries Giving to Members of Congress: 2008 Cycle, accessed January 4th, 2009.
31.Health Insurance.org, "Health Care and Insurance Dominate the Washington Lobby," April 2008.
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