Health Insurance: Individual Market Protects Sickies Better than Small-Group Coverage

Market-oriented health-care wonks have proposed various ways of reforming the tax treatment of health insurance that would level the playing field between job-based coverage and coverage that consumers purchase directly (i.e., on the “individual” market).  The key to those proposals is that they would let workers control money their employer now controls, and generally would allow workers to spend those earnings on the mix of medical care and health insurance that meets their needs. 

The political Left typically protests that if workers had the freedom to spend their earnings however they want, the multiplying villainies of the market would swarm upon the sick, leaving them with no insurance coverage.  For example, Elizabeth Edwards and others chide Sen. John McCain because, they claim, people with chronic conditions could not obtain health insurance in an unregulated individual market.  Edwards even wrote: “The insurance company makes money when it doesn’t have to pay for our health care. (I suspect that if they could, they would write obstetrical-only policies for nuns.)”

An economist at the University of Pennsylvania named Mark Pauly spends much of his time collecting evidence – I repeat, evidence – that this view does not reflect the reality of unregulated health insurance markets.  Pauly and his colleagues have found:

[A]ctual premiums paid for individual insurance are much less than proportional to risk, and risk levels have a small effect on obtaining coverage. States limiting risk rating in individual insurance display lower premiums for high risks than other states, but such rate regulation leads to an increase in the total number of uninsured people. The effect on risk pooling is small because of the large amount of risk pooling in unregulated individual insurance.

and

[T]here was substantial cross-subsidization of high-risk by low-risk persons in the individual insurance market in a period in which there was only minimal state regulation. Premiums do rise with risk, but the increase in premiums is only about 15 percent of the increase in risk. Premiums for individual insurance vary widely, but that variation is not very strongly related to the level of risk.

A new Health Affairs Web Exclusive by Pauly and colleague Robert Lieberthal offers further evidence that a freer market would provide high-cost patients more protection than today’s government-created employment-based system.  Pauly and Lieberthal write:

[A] young high-risk male who initially had small-group coverage faces a 44 percent chance of becoming uninsured in the next period—a risk nearly twice as great as it would be if he initially had individual insurance.  Somewhat ironically, the usual blame for such a person’s lacking coverage will be laid at the door of the medically underwriting individual insurer, which quotes a high premium, rather than being referred in part to the group insurance system that plunged this person into such a vulnerable situation in the first place.

Thus, it is not true that more freedom would mean no health insurance for people with costly medical conditions.  Provided consumers insure while they are still healthy, individual-market coverage offers as much or more protection to high-cost patients than they have now.

In the transition to a level playing field between employer-sponsored and individual-market coverage, there may be some people with high-cost conditions who lose their existing coverage, and cannot obtain subsequent coverage.  If that occurs, most Americans will want to offer some form of subsidy to those hard cases – a group that does not include wealthy people like Elizabeth Edwards, John McCain, or Jay Cutler.  

When fashioning those subsidies, policymakers should bear two things in mind.  First, as Pauly’s work suggests, this is likely to be a temporary problem; markets can and will cover tomorrow’s high-cost patients.  Second, policymakers should not try to force insurance markets to provide the desired subsidies; that would undo the substantial good that unregulated insurance markets can achieve.