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Article

Gregory Colman, Dhaval Dave, and Otto Lenhart

Health insurance depends on labor market activity more in the U.S. than in any other high-income country. A majority of the population are insured through an employer (known as employer-sponsored insurance or ESI), benefiting from the risk pooling and economies of scale available to group insurance plans. Some workers may therefore be reluctant to leave a job for fear of losing such low-cost insurance, a tendency known as “job lock,” or may switch jobs or work more hours merely to obtain it, known as “job push.” Others obtain insurance through government programs for which eligibility depends on income. They too may adapt their work effort to remain eligible for insurance. Those without access to ESI or who are too young or earn too much to qualify for public coverage (Medicare and Medicaid) can buy insurance only in the individual or nongroup market, where prices are high and variable. Most studies using data from before the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 support the prediction that ESI reduced job mobility, labor-force participation, retirement, and self-employment prior to the ACA, but find little effect on the labor supply of public insurance. The ACA profoundly changed the health insurance market in the U.S., removing restrictions on obtaining insurance from new employers or on the individual market and expanding Medicaid eligibility to previously ineligible adults. Research on the ACA, however, has not found substantial labor supply effects. These results may reflect that the reforms to the individual market mainly affected those who were previously uninsured rather than workers with ESI, that the theoretical labor market effects of expansions in public coverage are ambiguous, and that the effect would be found only among the relatively small number on the fringes of eligibility.

Article

Most developed nations provide generous coverage of care services, using either a tax financed healthcare system or social health insurance. Such systems pursue efficiency and equity in care provision. Efficiency means that expenditures are minimized for a given level of care services. Equity means that individuals with equal needs have equal access to the benefit package. In order to limit expenditures, social health insurance systems explicitly limit their benefit package. Moreover, most such systems have introduced cost sharing so that beneficiaries bear some cost when using care services. These limits on coverage create room for private insurance that complements or supplements social health insurance. Everywhere, social health insurance coexists along with voluntarily purchased supplementary private insurance. While the latter generally covers a small portion of health expenditures, it can interfere with the functioning of social health insurance. Supplementary health insurance can be detrimental to efficiency through several mechanisms. It limits competition in managed competition settings. It favors excessive care consumption through coverage of cost sharing and of services that are complementary to those included in social insurance benefits. It can also hinder achievement of the equity goals inherent to social insurance. Supplementary insurance creates inequality in access to services included in the social benefits package. Individuals with high incomes are more likely to buy supplementary insurance, and the additional care consumption resulting from better coverage creates additional costs that are borne by social health insurance. In addition, there are other anti-redistributive mechanisms from high to low risks. Social health insurance should be designed, not as an isolated institution, but with an awareness of the existence—and the possible expansion—of supplementary health insurance.

Article

The interaction between poverty and social policy is an issue of longstanding interest in academic and policy circles. There are active debates on how to measure poverty, including where to draw the threshold determining whether a family is deemed to be living in poverty and how to measure resources available. These decisions have profound impacts on our understanding of the anti-poverty effectiveness of social welfare programs. In the context of the United States, focusing solely on cash income transfers shows little progress against poverty over the past 50 years, but substantive gains are obtained if the resource concept is expanded to include in-kind transfers and refundable tax credits. Beyond poverty, the research literature has examined the effects of social welfare policy on a host of outcomes such as labor supply, consumption, health, wealth, fertility, and marriage. Most of this work finds the disincentive effects of welfare programs on work, saving, and family structure to be small, but the income and consumption smoothing benefits to be sizable, and some recent work has found positive long-term effects of transfer programs on the health and education of children. More research is needed, however, on how to measure poverty, especially in the face of deteriorating quality of household surveys, on the long-term consequences of transfer programs, and on alternative designs of the welfare state.

Article

Joachim Winter and Amelie Wuppermann

Choice of health insurance plans has become a key element of many healthcare systems around the world along with a general expansion of patient choice under the label of “Consumer-Directed Healthcare.” Allowing consumers to choose their insurance plan was commonly associated with the aim of enhancing competition between insurers and thus to contribute to the efficient delivery of healthcare. However, the evidence is accruing that consumers have difficulties in making health insurance decisions in their best interest. For example, many consumers choose plans with which they spend more in terms of premiums and out-of-pocket costs than in other available options. This has consequences for the individual consumer’s budget as well as for the functioning of the insurance market. The literature puts forward several possible reasons for consumers’ difficulties in making health insurance choices in their best interest. First, consumers may not have a sufficient level of knowledge of insurance products; for example, they might not understand insurance terminology. Second, the environment or architecture in which consumers make their decision may be too complicated. Health insurance products vary in a large number of features that consumers have to evaluate when comparing options, introducing search or hassle costs. Third, consumers may be prone to psychological biases and employ decision-making heuristics that impede good choices. For example, they might choose the plan with the cheapest premium, ignoring other important plan features that determine total cost, such as copayments. There is also evidence that consumer education programs, simplification of the choice environment, or introducing nudges such as setting smart defaults facilitate consumer decision making. Despite recent progress in our understanding of consumer choices in health insurance markets, important challenges remain. Evidence-based healthcare policy should be based on an evaluation of whether different interventions aimed at facilitating consumer choices result in welfare improvements. Ultimately, this requires measuring consumer utility, an issue that is vividly debated in the literature. Furthermore, welfare calculations necessitate an understanding of how interventions will affect the supply of health insurance, including supply reactions to changes in demand. This depends on the specific regulatory setting and characteristics of the specific market.

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

Maria Soledad Martinez Peria and Mu Yang Shin

The link between financial inclusion and human development is examined here. Using cross-country data, the behavior of variables that try to capture these concepts is examined and preliminary evidence of a positive association is offered. However, because establishing a causal relationship with macro-data is difficult, a thorough review of the literature on the impact of financial inclusion, focusing on micro-studies that can better address identification is conducted. The literature generally distinguishes between different dimensions of financial inclusion: access to credit, access to bank branches, and access to saving instruments (i.e., accounts). Despite promising results from a first wave of studies, the impact of expanding access to credit seems limited at best, with little evidence of transformative effects on human development outcomes. While there is more promising evidence on the impact of expanding access to bank branches and formal saving instruments, studies show that some interventions such as one-time account opening subsidies are unlikely to have a sizable impact on social and economic outcomes. Instead well-designed interventions catering to individuals’ specific needs in different contexts seem to be required to realize the full potential of formal financial services to enrich human lives.

Article

Alexandrina Stoyanova and David Cantarero-Prieto

Long-term care (LTC) systems entitle frail and disabled people, who experience declines in physical and mental capacities, to quality care and support from an appropriately trained workforce and aim to preserve individual health and promote personal well-being for people of all ages. Myriad social factors pose significant challenges to LTC services and systems worldwide. Leading among these factors is the aging population—that is, the growing proportion of older people, the main recipients of LTC, in the population—and the implications not only for the health and social protection sectors, but almost all other segments of society. The number of elderly citizens has increased significantly in recent years in most countries and regions, and the pace of that growth is expected to accelerate in the forthcoming decades. The rapid demographic evolution has been accompanied by substantial social changes that have modified the traditional pattern of delivery LTC. Although families (and friends) still provide most of the help and care to relatives with functional limitations, changes in the population structure, such as weakened family ties, increased participation of women in the labor market, and withdrawal of early retirement policies, have resulted in a decrease in the provision of informal care. Thus, the growing demands for care, together with a lower potential supply of informal care, is likely to put pressure on the provision of formal care services in terms of both quantity and quality. Other related concerns include the sustainable financing of LTC services, which has declined significantly in recent years, and the pursuit of equity. The current institutional background regarding LTC differs substantially across countries, but they all face similar challenges. Addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive approach that allows for the adoption of the “right” mix of policies between those aiming at informal care and those focusing on the provision and financing of formal LTC services.

Article

Life-cycle choices and outcomes over financial (e.g., savings, portfolio, work) and health-related variables (e.g., medical spending, habits, sickness, and mortality) are complex and intertwined. Indeed, labor/leisure choices can both affect and be conditioned by health outcomes, precautionary savings is determined by exposure to sickness and longevity risks, where the latter can both be altered through preventive medical and leisure decisions. Moreover, inevitable aging induces changes in the incentives and in the constraints for investing in one’s own health and saving resources for old age. Understanding these pathways poses numerous challenges for economic models. The life-cycle data is indicative of continuous declines in health statuses and associated increases in exposure to morbidity, medical expenses, and mortality risks, with accelerating post-retirement dynamics. Theory suggests that risk-averse and forward-looking agents should rely on available instruments to insure against these risks. Indeed, market- and state-provided health insurance (e.g., Medicare) cover curative medical expenses. High end-of-life home and nursing-home expenses can be hedged through privately or publicly provided (e.g., Medicaid) long-term care insurance. The risk of outliving one’s financial resources can be hedged through annuities. The risk of not living long enough can be insured through life insurance. In practice, however, the recourse to these hedging instruments remains less than predicted by theory. Slow-observed wealth drawdown after retirement is unexplained by bequest motives and suggests precautionary motives against health-related expenses. The excessive reliance on public pension (e.g., Social Security) and the post-retirement drop in consumption not related to work or health are both indicative of insufficient financial preparedness and run counter to consumption smoothing objectives. Moreover, the capacity to self-insure through preventive care and healthy habits is limited when aging is factored in. In conclusion, the observed health and financial life-cycle dynamics remain challenging for economic theory.

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.

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

During the 18th and 19th centuries, medical spending in the United States rose slowly, on average about .25% faster than gross domestic product (GDP), and varied widely between rural and urban regions. Accumulating scientific advances caused spending to accelerate by 1910. From 1930 to 1955, rapid per-capita income growth accommodated major medical expansion while keeping the health share of GDP almost constant. During the 1950s and 1960s, prosperity and investment in research, the workforce, and hospitals caused a rapid surge in spending and consolidated a truly national health system. Excess growth rates (above GDP growth) were above +5% per year from 1966 to 1970, which would have doubled the health-sector share in fifteen years had it not moderated, falling under +3% in the 1980s, +2% in 1990s, and +1.5% since 2005. The question of when national health expenditure growth can be brought into line with GDP and made sustainable for the long run is still open. A review of historical data over three centuries forces confrontation with issues regarding what to include and how long events continue to effect national health accounting and policy. Empirical analysis at a national scale over multiple decades fails to support a position that many of the commonly discussed variables (obesity, aging, mortality rates, coinsurance) do cause significant shifts in expenditure trends. What does become clear is that there are long and variable lags before macroeconomic and technological events affect spending: three to six years for business cycles and multiple decades for major recessions, scientific discoveries, and organizational change. Health-financing mechanisms, such as employer-based health insurance, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) are seen to be both cause and effect, taking years to develop and affecting spending for decades to come.

Article

Important health system challenges in the east and southeast Asian countries/territories of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia exist. The most commonly adopted health system among these areas is social health insurance. The high-income, aging societies of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have adopted single-payer/single-pipe systems with a single uniform benefit package and a single fee schedule for paying providers for services included in the benefit package. All three have achieved universal coverage with relatively equitable access to affordable care. All grapple with overutilization, aging populations, and hospital-centric and curative-focused care that is ill-suited for addressing an increasing chronic disease burden. Rising patient expectations and demand for expensive technologies contribute to rising costs. Korea also faces comparatively poorer financial risk protection. China, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines have also adopted social health insurance, though not single-payer systems. China and Thailand have established noncontributory schemes, whereby the government heavily subsidizes poor and non-poor populations. General tax revenue is used to extend coverage to those outside formal-sector employment. Both countries use multiple, unintegrated schemes to cover their populations. Thailand has improved access to care and financial risk protection. While China has improved insurance coverage, financial risk protection gains have been limited due to low levels of service coverage, fee-for-service payment systems, poor gatekeeping, and the fee schedule that incentivizes overprescription of tests and medicine. Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines use contributory schemes. Government revenue provides insurance coverage for the poor, near-poor, and selected vulnerable populations; the rest of the population must contribute to enroll. Therefore, expanding insurance coverage to the informal sector has been a significant challenge. Instead of social health insurance, Hong Kong and Malaysia have two-tiered health systems where the public sector is financed by general tax revenue and the private sector is financed primarily by out-of-pocket payments and limited private insurance. There is universal access to care; free or subsidized, good-quality public-sector services provide financial risk protection. However, Hong Kong and Malaysia have fragmented delivery systems, weak primary care, budgetary strains, and inequitable access to private care (which may offer shorter wait times and better perceived quality). Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar’s health systems feature high out-of-pocket spending, low government investment in health, and reliance on external aid. User fees, low insurance coverage, unequal distribution of health services, and fragmented financing pose pressing challenges to achieving equitable access and adequate financial risk protection. These countries/territories are diverse in terms of demographics, epidemiological profiles, and stages of economic development, and thus they face different health system challenges and opportunities. This diversity also suggests that these nations/territories will utilize different types of health systems to achieve universal health coverage, whereby all people have equitable access to affordable, good-quality care with adequate financial risk protection.

Article

Diane McIntyre, Amarech G. Obse, Edwine W. Barasa, and John E. Ataguba

Within the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, it is important to critically review research on healthcare financing in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) from the perspective of the universal health coverage (UHC) goals of financial protection and access to quality health services for all. There is a concerning reliance on direct out-of-pocket payments in many SSA countries, accounting for an average of 36% of current health expenditure compared to only 22% in the rest of the world. Contributions to health insurance schemes, whether voluntary or mandatory, contribute a small share of current health expenditure. While domestic mandatory prepayment mechanisms (tax and mandatory insurance) is the next largest category of healthcare financing in SSA (35%), a relatively large share of funding in SSA (14% compared to <1% in the rest of the world) is attributable to, sometimes unstable, external funding sources. There is a growing recognition of the need to reduce out-of-pocket payments and increase domestic mandatory prepayment financing to move towards UHC. Many SSA countries have declared a preference for achieving this through contributory health insurance schemes, particularly for formal sector workers, with service entitlements tied to contributions. Policy debates about whether a contributory approach is the most efficient, equitable and sustainable means of financing progress to UHC are emotive and infused with “conventional wisdom.” A range of research questions must be addressed to provide a more comprehensive empirical evidence base for these debates and to support progress to UHC.