Benefit Mandates, Catastrophic Coverage, Death Spiral, Flood Planes, Free Riders, High-Risk Pool, Individual Mandate, Insurability Rider, Obamacare, Portability, Pre-Existing Conditions, Rate Regulation, Social Safety Net
Forcing health insurers to cover pre-existing conditions at standard rates is like asking home insurers to cover homes in flood plains at standard rates. If the government says home insurers must do so, standard rates will rise as well as the cost of homeownership. Lenders generally won’t accept homes as collateral unless they are adequately insured against flooding, and by raising the cost of insurance, the government requirement that all must share in the burden of high flood risk would discourage homeownership generally. But you’ll get a break if you’re in a flood plain! Coercive government regulations like rate regulation and coverage mandates have destructive (but predictable) consequences.
The difference between flood plains and health conditions is that sooner or later, a lot of us will be burdened with the latter. The trick is to get underwritten for health insurance before that happens. If the government says that health insurers must offer standard rates to those already afflicted with serious health conditions, à la Obamacare, standard rates will rise, which will induce some potential buyers to opt out. In fact, it will lead the youngest and healthiest potential buyers to opt out. This is the genesis of the so-called insurance death spiral.
Some then ask why the government shouldn’t prevent opt-outs by requiring all individuals to carry health insurance… an individual mandate. Perhaps doubling down on government coercion via compelled coverage might rectify the ill effects of rate regulation. However, requiring low-risk individuals to pay rates that exceed their willingness to pay cross-subsidizes individuals who belong in a different risk pool. Aside from it’s doubtful constitutionality and infringement on individual liberty, this policy forces low-risk individuals to insure and pay as if they are high-risk, and high-risk individuals to pay as if they are low risk, and it leaves the task of pricing to the arbitrary decisions of bureaucrats. It may also lead to massive distortions in the use of medical resources.
Direct Subsidies Are Better
There is a better way to provide coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions, one that does not destroy the risk-mitigating function of health insurance markets. High-risk individuals can be covered through a combination of self-paid standard premiums and a direct public subsidy that does not distort the market’s social function in pricing risk. Such a subsidy would be funded by individuals in their roles as taxpayers, not as premium payers. Now, I’m the last person to advocate big-government solutions to social and economic problems, but this approach requires only that government serve as a pass-through entity. Government need not play any role in providing or regulating health care, and it should not interfere with the pricing of risk in private markets for health insurance.
The high-risk segment’s reliance on subsidies can be minimized over time with certain innovations. In particular, healthy individuals should be able to purchase riders protecting their future insurability at standard rates. Their premium would include a component reflecting the discounted expected costs of developing health conditions in the future. The additional premium could even be structured as level payments over time. People will develop health conditions, of course, a few much sooner than others, but without an incremental impact on their future premiums, as the additional risk would be covered by the cost of the rider for future insurability.
To see how the situation would evolve, suppose that the standard risk pool includes everyone free of pre-existing conditions, young and old, with guaranteed future insurability. The high-risk segment is already afflicted with conditions and mostly reliant on the direct subsidies discussed above, but that segment will shrink over time as the population ages and mortality takes its toll. Therefore, the proportion of individuals reliant on subsidies will decline. Meanwhile, the standard risk pool transforms into a combination of healthy and sick, but it is actuarily sustainable without subsidies. Of course, some fraction of individuals will always be born with serious health conditions, though one day prospective parents could conceivably purchase future insurability protection for their children at conception… well, perhaps just a little after. The point is that the initial level of subsidies should be transitional. For a permanently small share of individuals, however, it will be a part of the social safety net.
To extend the foregoing, there is considerable latitude in the composition of “standard risks” and the willingness of individual buyers to pay premiums that might reflect interpersonal differences. For example, individuals should be free to self-insure, foregoing participation in the insurance market altogether. If they do so, the insured risk pool will e of lower quality. Some people might prefer to purchase insurance covering catastrophic health events only, paying for health maintenance out-of-pocket as well as care for conditions less immediately threatening. Health maintenance is not really a risk anyway, but more of a constant, so excluding it from insurance contracts is sensible. In fact, less “comprehensive” insurance coverage keeps the cost of coverage down, encouraging wider participation and enhancing the quality of the risk pool.
These insurability riders might not accomplish much under a regime of mandated comprehensive benefits. That would increase the cost of coverage as well as the cost of the insurability rider, making it more likely that healthy individuals would opt-out. That brings us back to the “elephant in the room”: whether a so-called individual mandate is required to ensure that 1) the “standard” risk pool is of high quality; and 2) the uninsured don’t “free-ride” by capturing the public subsidy once their health deteriorates for any reason. But again, the availability of less comprehensive coverage will keep premiums low and help to accomplish both objectives. Moreover, free-riders whose health fails could always be denied the public subsidy if they had been uninsured over a period of any length prior to their diagnosis. That would leave them with several less attractive alternatives: pay high-risk-pool premiums out of their own pockets, or rely on assistance from family, friends, charitable organizations and providers.
Requiring insurers to cover pre-existing health conditions at standard rates is destructive to insurance markets. It imposes liabilities for more certain, costly events in a market for which sustainable operation depends on the pooling of events of similar risk. It harms consumers directly by increasing the cost of mitigating those risks. It worsens the uninsured free-rider problem, causing additional deterioration in the risk pool and adding more cost pressure. It also may lead to increases in out-of-pocket deductibles and copayment rates as insurers attempt to manage high claim levels. And it invites further regulatory intervention, as policymakers engage in misguided attempts to “fix” problems created by the original intervention (while blaming the market, of course).
A further question is whether the alternative I have outlined would involve federal subsidies or state outlays funded in part by federal block grants. I prefer the latter, but either way, it is less costly and distortionary to pay for insuring against the costs of pre-existing conditions via direct subsidies to needy individuals as part of the social safety net than by destroying insurance markets.