Can Private Health Insurance Work?

Efforts to fix our health insurance system have found no found shortage of critical flaws in the “market”. I have yet to hear a coherent argument for the continued existence of private health insurance. Health care differs in three critical ways from traditional markets. Taken together I doubt that it is even conceivable for a private market to exist for health insurance.

In a true free market those who got sick and couldn’t afford care would be left to die or suffer the consequences of their conditions. This is a rational, yet morally abhorrent policy. Even the most die hard free marketers don’t advocate this. The unwillingness to condemn the poor to preventable death is the first significant obstacle to a functioning private health insurance market.

The second critical obstacle is the great variation in expected health care costs. Insurance markets are designed to protect individuals from significant deviations from expected costs. Consider auto insurance, every driver faces some risk or an accident, but few expect to total their car in a given year. By pooling risk, the small percentage of drivers that do suffer serious crashes can avoid financial ruin.

But this logic in no way applies to health insurance. Many people suffer conditions that have high known costs. If you are HIV positive or have Diabetes or are paraplegic medical costs are not an unexpected catastrophe, they are a known expense of life. Only the richest individuals can cover these costs out of pocket. Insurance can’t solve this problem only subsidies can.

Timing is the third critical difference between health insurance and traditional health markets. For insurance to function a claim must be tied to a specific instance. A fire, a car accident, a death are all discrete events that can be placed at a specific moment in time. The bulk of health care spending is spent treating chronic conditions. Who’s to say exactly when a person developed high blood pressure or depression. Furthermore, health conditions incur costs that continue long beyond the length of an insurance contract.

Efforts to twist private insurance around these three restraints are destined to produce warped markets and twisted incentives. The regulations currently oozing through congress will make life better for many people, but they do not address the fundamental incoherence of private health insurance.

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