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Article

Hendrik Schmitz and Svenja Winkler

The terms information and risk aversion play central roles in healthcare economics. While risk aversion is among the main reasons for the existence of health insurance, information asymmetries between insured individual and insurance company potentially lead to moral hazard or adverse selection. This has implications for the optimal design of health insurance contracts, but whether there is indeed moral hazard or adverse selection is ultimately an empirical question. Recently, there was even a debate whether the opposite of adverse selection—advantageous selection—prevails. Private information on risk aversion might weigh out information asymmetries regarding risk type and lead to more insurance coverage of healthy individuals (instead of less insurance coverage in adverse selection). Information and risk preferences are important not only in health insurance but more generally in health economics. For instance, they affect health behavior and, consequently, health outcomes. The degree of risk aversion, the ability to perceive risks, and the availability of information about risks partly explain why some individuals engage in unhealthy behavior while others refrain from smoking, drinking, or the like. Information has several dimensions. Apart from information on one’s personal health status, risk preferences, or health risks, consumer information on provider quality or health insurance supply is central in the economics of healthcare. Even though healthcare systems are necessarily highly regulated throughout the world, all systems at least allow for some market elements. These typically include the possibility of consumer choice, for instance, regarding health insurance coverage or choice of medical provider. An important question is whether consumer choice elements work in the healthcare sector—that is, whether consumers actually make rational or optimal decisions—and whether more information can improve decision quality.

Article

Sherry Glied and Richard Frank

Mental health economics addresses problems that are common to all of health economics, but that occur with greater severity in this context. Several characteristics of mental health conditions—age of onset, chronicity, observability, and external effects—make them particularly economically challenging, and a range of policies have evolved to address these problems. The need for insurance—and for social insurance—to address mental health problems has grown. There is an expanding number of effective treatments available for mental health conditions, and these treatments can be relatively costly. The particular characteristics of mental health conditions exacerbate the usual problems of moral hazard, adverse selection, and agency. There is increased recognition, in both the policy and economics literatures, of the array of services and supports required to enable people with severe mental illnesses to function in society’s mainstream. The need for such non-medical services, generates economic problems of cross-system coordination and opportunism. Moreover, the impairments imposed by mental disorders have become more disruptive to the labor market because the nature of work is changing in a manner that creates special disadvantages to people with these conditions. New directions for mental health economics would address these effects.

Article

Richard C. van Kleef, Thomas G. McGuire, Frederik T. Schut, and Wynand P. M. M. van de Ven

Many countries rely on social health insurance supplied by competing insurers to enhance fairness and efficiency in healthcare financing. Premiums in these settings are typically community rated per health plan. Though community rating can help achieve fairness objectives, it also leads to a variety of problems due to risk selection, that is, actions by consumers and insurers to exploit “unpriced risk” heterogeneity. From the viewpoint of a consumer, unpriced risk refers to the gap between her expected spending under a health plan and the net premium for that plan. Heterogeneity in unpriced risk can lead to selection by consumers in and out of insurance and between high- and low-value plans. These forms of risk selection can result in upward premium spirals, inefficient take-up of basic coverage, and inefficient sorting of consumers between high- and low-value plans. From the viewpoint of an insurer, unpriced risk refers to the gap between his expected costs under a certain contract and the revenues he receives for that contract. Heterogeneity in unpriced risk incentivizes insurers to alter their plan offerings in order to attract profitable people, resulting in inefficient plan design and possibly in the unavailability of high-quality care. Moreover, insurers have incentives to target profitable people via marketing tools and customer service, which—from a societal perspective—can be considered a waste of resources. Common tools to counteract selection problems are risk equalization, risk sharing, and risk rating of premiums. All three strategies reduce unpriced risk heterogeneity faced by insurers and thus diminish selection actions by insurers such as the altering of plan offerings. Risk rating of premiums also reduces unpriced risk heterogeneity faced by consumers and thus mitigates selection in and out of insurance and between high- and low-value plans. All three strategies, however, come with trade-offs. A smart blend takes advantage of the strengths, while reducing the weaknesses of each strategy. The optimal payment system configuration will depend on how a regulator weighs fairness and efficiency and on how the healthcare system is organized.

Article

Ching-to Albert Ma and Henry Y. Mak

Health services providers receive payments mostly from private or public insurers rather than patients. Provider incentive problems arise because an insurer misses information about the provider and patients, and has imperfect control over the provider’s treatment, quality, and cost decisions. Different provider payment systems, such as prospective payment, capitation, cost reimbursement, fee-for-service, and value-based payment, generate different treatment quality and cost incentives. The important issue is that a payment system implements an efficient quality-cost outcome if and only if it makes the provider internalize the social benefits and costs of services. Thus, the internalization principle can be used to evaluate payment systems across different settings. The most common payment systems are prospective payment, which pays a fixed price for service rendered, and cost reimbursement, which pays according to costs of service rendered. In a setting where the provider chooses health service quality and cost reduction effort, prospective payment satisfies the internalization principle but cost reimbursement does not. The reason is that prospective payment forces the provider to be responsible for cost, but cost reimbursement relieves the provider of the cost responsibility. Beyond this simple setting, the provider may select patients based on patients’ cost heterogeneity. Then neither prospective payment nor cost reimbursement achieves efficient quality and cost incentives. A mixed system that combines prospective payment and cost reimbursement performs better than each of its components alone. In general, the provider’s preferences and available strategies determine if a payment system may achieve internalization. If the provider is altruistic toward patients, prospective payment can be adjusted to accommodate altruism when the provider’s degree of altruism is known to the insurer. However, when the degree of altruism is unknown, even a mixed system may fail the internalization principle. Also, the internalization principle fails under prospective payment when the provider can upcode patient diagnoses for more favorable prices. Cost reimbursement attenuates the upcoding incentive. Finally, when the provider can choose many qualities, either prospective payment and cost reimbursement should be combined with the insurer’s disclosure on quality and cost information to satisfy the internalization principle. When good healthcare quality is interpreted as a good match between patients and treatments, payment design is to promote good matches. The internalization principle now requires the provider to bear benefits and costs of diagnosis effort and treatment choice. A mixed system may deliver efficient matching incentives. Payment systems necessarily interact with other incentive mechanisms such as patients’ reactions against the provider’s quality choice and other providers’ competitive strategies. Payment systems then become part of organizational incentives.

Article

In many countries of the world, consumers choose their health insurance coverage from a large menu of often complex options supplied by private insurance companies. Economic benefits of the wide choice of health insurance options depend on the extent to which the consumers are active, well informed, and sophisticated decision makers capable of choosing plans that are well-suited to their individual circumstances. There are many possible ways how consumers’ actual decision making in the health insurance domain can depart from the standard model of health insurance demand of a rational risk-averse consumer. For example, consumers can have inaccurate subjective beliefs about characteristics of alternative plans in their choice set or about the distribution of health expenditure risk because of cognitive or informational constraints; or they can prefer to rely on heuristics when the plan choice problem features a large number of options with complex cost-sharing design. The second decade of the 21st century has seen a burgeoning number of studies assessing the quality of consumer choices of health insurance, both in the lab and in the field, and financial and welfare consequences of poor choices in this context. These studies demonstrate that consumers often find it difficult to make efficient choices of private health insurance due to reasons such as inertia, misinformation, and the lack of basic insurance literacy. These findings challenge the conventional rationality assumptions of the standard economic model of insurance choice and call for policies that can enhance the quality of consumer choices in the health insurance domain.