What Is ‘Meaningful’ Health Insurance? Who Decides?’

Noting that premium increases, such as Anthem’s proposed 39-percent hike in California, have caused individuals and employers to purchase less coverage, Kaiser Family Foundation president Drew Altman writes:

Rising health care costs and insurance company practices are leading not just to more expensive premiums, but to skimpier, less comprehensive coverage as well; slowly redefining what we have known as health insurance. To be sure, some economists argue that this is precisely what should happen…But this is not likely how regular people see it. Appropriate cost sharing is one thing, but we may be reaching the point in the individual market where the policies many people have simply cannot be considered meaningful coverage.

Of course, this is the whole idea behind President Obama’s proposed tax on high-cost health plans: higher prices will cause people to purchase less coverage, which will temper health care spending.

But whether Altman is correct depends on what the meaning of “meaningful” is.  When individuals pare back the amount of insurance they purchase, they are revealing what they consider to be meaningful coverage.  (The same is true when employers opt for less-comprehensive coverage, though employers’ revealed preferences are obviously a poor proxy for what their workers value.)

If Altman thinks the coverage that individuals are choosing “cannot be considered meaningful coverage” (note the passive voice), he is implicitly stating that individuals are not the best judges of their own welfare.  And the only way to devise an alternative definition of meaningful coverage is through the political process.

It is difficult to argue that the political process does a better job of selecting meaningful coverage.  That process forces many consumers to purchase coverage that they don’t find meaningful (e.g., chiropractic, acupuncture, circumcision), that they find offensive (e.g., abortion, contraception, in-vitro fertilization), or for treatments that are downright harmful (e.g., high-dose chemotherapy combined with autologous bone-marrow transplant for late-stage breast cancer).

Letting consumers reveal their preferences is possibly the worst way to define “meaningful coverage.”  Except for all the others.