Financial Protection Against Medical Expense
- Owen O'DonnellOwen O'DonnellErasmus School of Economics, Erasmus University Rotterdam
Financial protection is claimed to be an important objective of health policy. Yet there is a lack of clarity about what it is and no consensus on how to measure it. This impedes the design of efficient and equitable health financing. Arguably, the objective of financial protection is to shield nonmedical consumption from the cost of healthcare. The instruments are formal health insurance and public finances, as well as informal and self-insurance mechanisms that do not impair earnings potential. There are four main approaches to the measurement of financial protection: the extent of consumption smoothing over health shocks, the risk premium (willingness to pay in excess of a fair premium) to cover uninsured medical expenses, catastrophic healthcare payments, and impoverishing healthcare payments. The first of these does not restrict attention to medical expenses, which limits its relevance to health financing policy. The second rests on assumptions about risk preferences. No measure treats medical expenses that are financed through informal insurance and self-insurance instruments in an entirely satisfactory way. By ignoring these sources of imperfect insurance, the catastrophic payments measure overstates the impact of out-of-pocket medical expenses on living standards, while the impoverishment measure does not credibly identify poverty caused by them. It is better thought of as a correction to the measurement of poverty.