Over 17 million Americans purchase health insurance for themselves and their families. Of the 47 million Americans uninsured during any year, academics project that six-to-twelve million could afford coverage, but either cannot obtain it due to their health conditions or choose not to purchase insurance. For argument’s sake, let’s say the market for self-purchased policies — generally referred to as individual coverage or, sometimes individual and family coverage — is around 20 million Americans.
That’s a substantial market. For years, however, it was mostly ignored. To be sure, consumer affairs and financial writers would publish their annual article on how to buy health insurance you’re self-employed. And health insurance agents certainly talk about the product. But for most people, the difference between individual and group coverage was of no interest. It was all “health insurance.”
That’s changing. First, because Senator John McCain and others, mostly Republican lawmakers, want to shift the nation’s health care system from one built around employers to one centered on individuals. Senator McCain’s health care reform plan calls for allowing “individuals to get insurance through any organization or association that they choose: employers, individual purchases, churches, professional association, and so forth.”
The second reason for greater attention being focused on individual insurance is the result of how some insurance companies have reacted to current market realities. Since purchasing health insurance is voluntary, insurance companies need to protect themselves from those waiting until they’ve got claims in hand before buying. This means they require a health history from all applicants and accept only those posing an “acceptable risk.” In other contexts this behavior is understandable. No one expects auto insurance companies to sell coverage after an accident. No one expects insurers to sell a fire insurance policy after the house has burned down. Yet, surprisingly, many consumers — and policy makers — seem to believe that requiring insurers to sell medical coverage to individuals who have already scheduled their surgery is both financially and morally sound.
Some states, such as New York and New Jersey, require insurers to guarantee issue coverage to all applicants regardless of their health condition. Consumers in New York and New Jersey also pay premiums costing on average twice as much as those in Californians. But some carriers went beyond screening out high risks at the time they applied for coverage and instead sought to terminate the coverage when they used their insurance. The aggressive rescission practices of these carriers earned insurers tremendous criticism and ill-will.
The convergence of these two factors: the presumptive Republican presidential nominee seeking to expand the individual market and abusive rescissions by some carriers can have but one result: a Congressional inquiry. Democratic House Committee Chairmen John Dingell, Henry Waxman, and Frank Pallone have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the state of the individual health insurance market. They have also asked the GAO to look into the operation of state high risk pools which offer coverage to those unable to obtain private insurance.
In making their request, the Congressmen stated “The individual market for health insurance coverage is seriously flawed. Many people who need insurance and apply for it are denied coverage in the individual market or are offered insurance coverage that turns out to be inadequate or it is too expensive or both.” If this sounds like they already know what the GAO investigation will uncover, well, they do.
This makes the results from this Congressional involvement relatively easy to predict. Insurance company CEOs will be required to testify under oath concerning their rescission practices. The Committees will determine that the current individual marketplace underserves consumers by excluding those with existing medical conditions. And while the high risk pools are serving an important purpose, the committees will determine their coverage is too barebones and too expensive.
Next will come a call for guarantee issue in the individual marketplace and, if Congress is serious about real reform, that will mean a call for requiring that all Americans obtain coverage. And that, in turn, means a health care reform package similar to what’s being put forward by Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — and it might even be acceptable to a President McCain.
Of course, just because what’s coming is predictable doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It just means change is coming, regardless of who is elected president.