Health insurance is insurance against the risk of incurring medical expenses among individuals. By estimating the overall risk of health care and health system expenses, among a targeted group, an insurer can develop a routine finance structure, such as a monthly premium or payroll tax, to ensure 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. According to the Health Insurance Association of America, health insurance is defined as “coverage that provides for the payments of benefits as a result of sickness or injury. Includes insurance for losses from accident, medical expense, disability, or accidental death and dismemberment.
A health insurance policy is:
- A contract between an insurance provider (e.g. an insurance company or a government) and an individual or his/her sponsor (e.g. an employer or a community organization). The contract can be renewable (e.g. annually, monthly) or lifelong in the case of private insurance, or be mandatory for all citizens in the case of national plans. The type and amount of health care costs that will be covered by the health insurance provider are specified in writing, in a member contract or “Evidence of Coverage” booklet for private insurance, or in a national health policy for public insurance.
- Provided by an employer-sponsored self-funded ERISA plan. The company generally advertises that they have one of the big insurance companies. However, in an ERISA case, that insurance company “doesn’t engage in the act of insurance”, they just administer it. Therefore ERISA plans are not subject to state laws. ERISA plans are governed by federal law under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Labor (USDOL). The specific benefits or coverage details are found in the Summary Plan Description (SPD). An appeal must go through the insurance company, then to the Employer’s Plan Fiduciary. If still required, the Fiduciary’s decision can be brought to the USDOL to review for ERISA compliance, and then file a lawsuit in federal court.
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. Furthermore, most policies do not apply co-pays for doctor’s visits or prescriptions against your deductible.
- 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 maxima. 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 maxima: 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 maxima 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 health insurance plans. In the U.S., the patient usually 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. For example in the province of Quebec, Canada, prescription drug insurance is universally required as part of the public health insurance plan, but may be purchased and administered either through private or group plans, or through the public plan.
Health care is mainly a constitutional, provincial government responsibility in Canada (the main exceptions being federal government responsibility for services provided to aboriginal peoples covered by treaties, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the armed forces, and members of parliament). Consequently each province administers its own health insurance program. The federal government influences health insurance by virtue of its fiscal powers – it transfers cash and tax points to the provinces to help cover the costs of the universal health insurance programs. Under the Canada Health Act, the federal government mandates and enforces the requirement that all people have free access to what are termed “medically necessary services,” defined primarily as care delivered by physicians or in hospitals, and the nursing component of long term residential care. If provinces allow doctors or institutions to charge patients for medically necessary services, the federal government reduces its payments to the provinces by the amount of the prohibited charges. Collectively, the public provincial health insurance systems in Canada are frequently referred to as Medicare. This public insurance is tax-funded out of general government revenues, although British Columbia and Ontario levy a mandatory premium with flat rates for individuals and families to generate additional revenues – in essence a surtax. Private health insurance is allowed, but in six provincial governments only for services that the public health plans do not cover, for example, semi-private or private rooms in hospitals and prescription drug plans. Four provinces allow insurance for services also mandated by the Canada Health Act, but in practice there is no market for it. All Canadians are free to use private insurance for elective medical services such as laser vision correction surgery, cosmetic surgery, and other non-basic medical procedures. Some 65% of Canadians have some form of supplementary private health insurance; many of them receive it through their employers. Private-sector services not paid for by the government account for nearly 30 percent of total health care spending.
In 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled, in Chaoulli v. Quebec, that the province’s prohibition on private insurance for health care already insured by the provincial plan violated the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in particular the sections dealing with the right to life and security, if there were unacceptably long wait times for treatment, as was alleged in this case. The ruling has not changed the overall pattern of health insurance across Canada but has spurred on attempts to tackle the core issues of supply and demand and the impact of wait times.