Monday, February 4, 2008

Health insurance

The term health insurance is generally used to describe a form of 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.

Health insurance works by estimating the overall risk of healthcare expenses and developing a routine finance structure (such as a monthly premium or annual tax) that will ensure that money is available to pay for the healthcare benefits specified in the insurance agreement. The benefit is administered by a central organization, most often either a government agency or a private or not-for-profit entity operating a health plan.[1]

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.[2].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.[3]

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.[4]

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 also 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.[4] The predecessors of today's Health Maintanence Organizations (HMOs) originated beginning in 1929, through the 1930's and on during World War II.[5][6]

How it works

A Health insurance policy is a contract between an insurance company and an individual. The contract can be renewable annually or monthly. The type and amount of health care costs that will be covered by the health plan are specified in advance, in the member contract or Evidence of Coverage booklet. The individual policy-holder's payment obligations may take several forms[7]:

-Premium: The amount the policy-holder pays to the health plan each month to purchase health coverage.
-Deductible: The amount that the policy-holder must pay out-of-pocket before the health plan 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 plan. It may take several doctor's visits or prescription refills before the policy-holder reaches the deductible and the health plan starts to pay for care.
-Copayment: The amount that the policy-holder must pay out of pocket before the health plan pays for a particular visit or service. For example, a policy-holder 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 paying a fixed amount up front (a copayment), the policy-holder must pay a percentage of the total cost. For example, the member might have to pay 20% of the cost of a surgery, while the health plan pays the other 80%. Because there is no upper limit on coinsurance, the policy-holder can end up owing very little, or a significant amount, depending on the actual costs of the services they obtain.
-Exclusions: Not all services are covered. The policy-holder is generally expected to pay the full cost of non-covered services out of their own pocket.
-Coverage limits: Some health plans only pay for health care up to a certain dollar amount. The policy-holder may be expected to pay any charges in excess of the health plan's maximum payment for a specific service. In addition, some plans 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 member's payment obligation ends when they reach the out-of-pocket maximum, and the health plan 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.
Prescription drug plans are a form of insurance offered through many employer benefit plans in the U.S., where the patient pays a copayment and the prescription drug insurance pays the rest.[citation needed]

Some health care providers 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, as the insurance company pays according to "reasonable" or "customary" charges, which may be less than the provider's usual fee.[citation needed]

Health insurance companies also often have a network of providers who agree to accept the reasonable and customary fee and waive the remainder.[citation needed] It will generally cost the patient less to use an in-network provider.[citation needed]

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 health maintenance organization,HMO, PPO, or POS plan. 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).

Inherent problems with insurance
Insurance systems must typically deal with two inherent challenges: adverse selection, which affects any voluntary system, and ex-post moral hazard, which affects any insurance system in which a third party bears major responsibility for payment, whether that is an employer or the government. Some national systems with compulsory insurance utilize systems of risk equalization to overcome these inherent problems.

Adverse selection
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 and it costs $250, that's much better than making monthly insurance payments of $400 (example figures).

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.[8] Some individuals have extremely high medical expenses, in extreme cases totaling a half million dollars or more. These represent a relatively small percentage of the insured population, however. [9] 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.[10] 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.[11] Among those who were offered coverage, the study found that 76% received offers at standard premium rates, and 22% were offered higher rates.[12] On the other side, applicants can get discounts if they do not smoke and are healthy.[13]

Moral hazard
Main article: Moral hazard
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.[14] 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. Other factors that increase utilization and therefore insurance prices are lifestyle-related: 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.[14]

Health insurance in the United States

Health insurance in the United States
Main articles: Health insurance in the United States and Health care in the United States
The U.S. market-based health care system relies heavily on private 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).[15]

Public programs provide the primary source of coverage for most seniors 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.[16]

In 2006, there were 47 million people in the U.S. (16% of the population) who were without health insurance for at least part of that year.[15] About 37% of the uninsured live in households with an income over $50,000.[15]

Health insurers in the U.S. have a negligible impact as employers—in 2004 they employed fewer than 470,000 people (less than 1/5th of 1% of the population) at an average salary of $61,409.[17] These figures, though, are frequently, and with comic effect, cited by insurers in an attempt to establish some raison d'etre.

Health insurance in Canada

Health insurance in Canada
Most health insurance in Canada is administered by each province, under the national law that requires all people to have free access to basic health services. Collectively, the public provincial health insurance systems in Canada are frequently referred to as Medicare. Private health insurance is allowed, but the provincial governments allow it only for services that the public health plans do not cover; for example, semi-private or private rooms in hospitals and prescription drug plans. Canadians are free to use private insurance for elective medical services such as Lasik surgery, plastic surgery such as liposuction, and other non-basic medical procedures. Some 65% of Canadians have some form of supplementary private health insurance; many of them receive it through their employers.[18] Private-sector services not paid for by the government account for nearly 30 percent of total health care spending.[19]

In 2005, the Supreme Court of Quebec ruled, in Chaoulli v. Quebec, that the province's prohibition on insurance for health care already insured by the state could constitute an infringement of the right to life and security if there were long wait times for treatment as happened in this case. Certain other provinces have legislation which financially discourages but does not forbid private health insurance in areas covered by the public plans. The ruling has not changed the overall pattern of health insurance across Canada but has spurred on attempts to tackle the core issues of supply and demand and the impact of wait times.[20]

Health insurance in Australia

Health insurance in Australia
The public health system is called Medicare. It ensures free universal access to hospital treatment and subsidised out-of-hospital medical treatment. It is funded by a 1.5% tax levy.

The private health system is funded by a number of private health insurance organisations. The largest of these is Medibank Private, which is government-owned, but operates as a government business enterprise under the same regulatory regime as all other registered private health funds. The Coalition Howard government had announced that Medibank would be privatised if it won the 2007 election, however they were defeated by the Australian Labor Party under Kevin Rudd which had already pledged that it would remain in government ownership.

Some private health insurers are 'for profit' enterprises, and some are non-profit organizations such as HCF Health Insurance. Some have membership restricted to particular groups, but the majority have open membership.

Most aspects of private health insurance in Australia are regulated by the Private Health Insurance Act 2007.

The private health system in Australia operates on a "community rating" basis, whereby premiums do not vary solely because of a person's previous medical history, current state of health, or (generally speaking) their age (but see Lifetime Health Cover below). Balancing this are waiting periods, in particular for pre-existing conditions (usually referred to within the industry as PEA, which stands for "pre-existing ailment"). Funds are entitled to impose a waiting period of up to 12 months on benefits for any medical condition the signs and symptoms of which existed during the six months ending on the day the person first took out insurance. They are also entitled to impose a 12-month waiting period for benefits for treatment relating to an obstetric condition, and a 2-month waiting period for all other benefits when a person first takes out private insurance. Funds have the discretion to reduce or remove such waiting periods in individual cases. They are also free not to impose them to begin with, but this would place such a fund at risk of "adverse selection", attracting a disproportionate number of members from other funds, or from the pool of intending members who might otherwise have joined other funds. It would also attract people with existing medical conditions, who might not otherwise have taken out insurance at all because of the denial of benefits for 12 months due to the PEA Rule. The benefits paid out for these conditions would create pressure on premiums for all the fund's members, causing some to drop their membership, which would lead to further rises, and a vicious cycle would ensue.

There are a number of other matters about which funds are not permitted to discriminate between members in terms of premiums, benefits or membership - these include racial origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, nature of employment, and leisure activities. Premiums for a fund's product that is sold in more than one state can vary from state to state, but not within the same state.

The Australian government has introduced a number of incentives to encourage adults to take out private hospital insurance. These include:

-Lifetime Health Cover: If a person has not taken out private hospital cover by the 1st July after their 30th birthday, then when (and if) they do so after this time, their premiums must include a loading of 2% per annum. Thus, a person taking out private cover for the first time at age 40 will pay a 10 per cent loading. The loading continues for 10 years. The loading applies only to premiums for hospital cover, not to ancillary (extras) cover.
-Medicare Levy Surcharge: People whose taxable income is greater than a specified amount (currently $50,000 for singles and $100,000 for families) and who do not have an adequate level of private hospital cover must pay a 1% surcharge on top of the standard 1.5% Medicare Levy. The rationale is that if the people in this income group are forced to pay more money one way or another, most would choose to purchase hospital insurance with it, with the possibility of a benefit in the event that they need private hospital treatment - rather than pay it in the form of extra tax as well as having to meet their own private hospital costs.
-Private Health Insurance Rebate: The government subsidises the premiums for all private health insurance cover, including hospital and ancillary (extras), by 30%, 35% or 40%.