Health insurance, like other forms of insurance, is a form of collectivism by means of which people collectively pool their risk, in this case the risk of incurring medical expenses. The collective is usually publicly owned or else is organized on a non-profit basis for the members of the pool, though in some countries health insurance pools may also be managed by for-profit companies. It is sometimes used more broadly to include insurance covering disability or long-term nursing or custodial care needs. It may be provided universally through government as a feature of social solidarity, as is typical in many industrial countries, or as form of government charity such as the United States Medicaid prgram. It may be purchased privately on a group basis (e.g., by a firm to cover its employees) or purchased by an individual for himself or his family. In each case, the covered groups or individuals pay a fee, premium, or tax, to help protect themselves from health care expenses.
By estimating the overall risk of health care expenses, a routine finance structure (such as a monthly premium or payroll tax) can be developed, ensuring that money is available to pay for the health care 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 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 is 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, monthly or be lifelong. The type and amount of health care costs that will be covered by the health insurance company are specified in advance, in a member contract or “Evidence of Coverage” booklet. The individual insured 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 to purchase health coverage.
- Deductible: The amount that the insured must pay out-of-pocket before the health insurer pays its share. For example, policy-holders 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.
- Co-payment: 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 co-payment for a doctor’s visit, or to obtain a prescription. A co-payment must be paid each time a particular service is obtained.
- Coinsurance: Instead of, or in addition to, paying a fixed amount up front (a co-payment), 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 are generally expected to pay the full cost of non-covered services out of their own pockets.
- 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 health insurance 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 co-payments, 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, assuming it matches what was authorized. Many smaller, routine services do not require authorization.
- Explanation of Benefits: A document that may be sent by an insurer to a patient explaining what was covered for a medical service, and how payment amount and patient responsibility amount were determined.
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. Such plans are routinely part of national health insurance programs.
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 (United States)
In the United States, 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 in the USA, these plans have taken the name mini-med plans or association plans. The term “association” is often used to describe them because they require membership in an association that must exist for some other purpose than to sell insurance. Examples include the Health Care Credit Union Association. 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.
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. 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.
Other researchers note that doctors and other healthcare providers (HCPs) are rewarded for merely treating patients rather than curing them and that patients insured through employer group policies have incentives to go to the absolute best HCPs rather than the most cost-effectiveones.