HEALTH INSURANCE: A BIG PROBLEM IN OUR PRIVATIZED HEALTH CARE SYSTEM

The goals of health insurance are to provide affordable access to health care and to protect people from the catastrophic costs of serious health problems. The health insurance system in the US is failing to meet these goals for many Americans.

The most recent and newsworthy issues with private health insurance are occurring in the so-called health insurance exchanges. These are state-level marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka Obama Care) where individuals without health insurance can buy coverage.

Many of the private health insurers offering policies through the exchanges are increasing the premiums they charge; some by as much as 62%. This is happening in part because some insurers initially set premiums unrealistically low in order to attract customers and gain market share. In addition, health care costs for those enrolling through the exchanges have been greater than some insurers estimated. [1]

As a result of these increased premiums, customers may switch to less expensive policies with less comprehensive coverage as well as higher deductible and co-payment amounts. This will increase the costs of health care for these customers, leaving some of them under-insured and vulnerable to financial hardship or bankruptcy if a major medical expense occurs.

Some insurers are terminating their participation in the exchanges, ostensibly because they aren’t making money on the policies they are selling there. However, in the case of Aetna, apparently it is planning to withdraw from 11 of the 15 exchanges in which it participates as retaliation for the federal government’s opposition to Aetna’s proposed merger with Humana. Both Aetna and Humana are among the 5 largest health insurers in the country. If this merger and another one (between Anthem and Cigna) that the government is blocking were approved, the top 5 health insurers would become 3 huge corporations. These are exactly the kinds of mergers that are resulting in decreased competition, increased prices, and near monopolistic power. (See my earlier blog post for more details.)

Overall, the health insurance corporations are raising premiums and cutting their participation in the exchanges to cut losses or increase profits. Profits are more important to them than meeting the goals of health insurance for customers.

Furthermore, private insurers are much less efficient than Medicare, the public health insurance program for our seniors. This is well documented. Medicare spends over 95% of its budget on actual health care. Private health insurers spends as little as 67% of premiums on actual health care. They use money from premiums to pay for advertising, profits, and executives’ compensation. To ensure a reasonable level of efficiency, the ACA requires health insurance policies offered on its exchanges to spend 80% of their premiums on actual health care – as opposed to administrative and corporate expenses.

Private health insurance simply doesn’t make sense from two key perspectives. First, health insurance and health care are not “markets” as defined by economics. Consumers don’t have perfect and clear information about the competing products. Consumers can’t and don’t effectively shop around for health insurance plans or health care services. When one needs a medical procedure, one doesn’t have the time, information, or capacity to shop around and find the best combination of quality and price.

Second, the whole premise of insurance is that risk is shared among a large, random pool of people. However, the multiple health insurers fragment the pool and, furthermore, each one works to attract healthy people (who are less costly to serve) and avoid those who are sick. With one large, random pool, the unpredictable nature of health care needs and costs is shared. The financial hardship of a serious medical issue does not fall on one individual or family. However, our private health insurance industry fragments the pool and tries to only insure healthy people. They do this through advertising, which therefore becomes a major expense, along with special perks like coverage for membership in a fitness center. They do it by denying payment so sick customers get frustrated and leave. This is clearly documented in Medicare, where the private insurers that provide services under Medicare are clearly successful at attracting the healthier seniors but then dumping them back into the government insurance pool when they get sick.

In addition, the presence of multiple private health insurers also increases costs for doctors, hospitals, and other providers of health care. Each insurer has its own forms and procedures with which the providers have to cope.

Roughly 50 – 60 million adults struggle with health care bills each year and the great majority of them have health insurance. This includes roughly 20% of the adult population under 65, the age of eligibility for automatic health insurance under Medicare. [2] Nearly 2 million Americans will file for bankruptcy this year in cases where unpaid medical bills are a major factor. Overwhelming health care bills are the number one reason for personal bankruptcy filings. [3]

More Americans have health insurance today than ever before thanks to the ACA, which has provided health insurance to 15 million people. However, because of the dysfunction of privatized health insurance, this has not significantly reduced financial hardship due to medical bills. Notably, the easiest way for health insurers to reduce costs and increase profits is to refuse to pay for health care services. Having a health insurer deny authorization or payment for care is something almost all Americans have experienced. In addition, health insurers are increasing premiums while reducing coverage and raising deductibles and co-payments.

Clearly, private health insurance is not meeting the goals of affordability and protection from financial hardship. My next post will present solutions to the problems of our privatized health care system.

[1]       Alonso-Zaldivar, R., 8/29/16, “Challenges mount for health law,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[2]       Sanger-Katz, M., 1/5/16, “Even insured can face crushing medical debt, study finds,” The New York Times

[3]       Mangan, D., 6/25/13, “Medical bills are the biggest cause of US bankruptcies,” CNBC (http://www.cnbc.com/id/100840148)

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