Perhaps this is an unnecessary statement of the obvious, but the point of insurance is to give people a financial safety net. Should an emergency or disaster strike, money you would struggle to find is paid out by your insurance company. But the squeeze has been on for the last decade as medical costs and the prices of essential drugs have been rising fast. In fact, so fast that the insurers cannot pass on all the increases to their policyholders. It was hard to raise premium rates while the economy was doing well. It became impossible to raise premiums when the recession hit without there being investigations by each state’s Commissioners for Insurance and complaints from everyone else. There comes a point when the insurer cannot get any more blood from the stone and has to sacrifice profits. This has left the medical profession, the hospitals and clinics in a winning position, while the pharmaceutical industry’s profits have continued to rise despite the recession. At the other end of the spectrum, the patients are the losers. There are some who discover the small print in their policies denies cover for the very illnesses they have. There are others whose savings are not enough to pay the deductibles and co-payments. And then there are those whose policies are cancelled when they make a claim for a chronic disease or disorder.
There is a new piece of research from the Commonwealth Fund, an independent, non-profit body. In 2007, it carried out a detailed survey among 2,600 people aged between 19 and 64. When their coverage was analysed, 20% were found significantly underinsured. Why was this happening? Because they were already spending more than 10% of their income on health coverage, whether as premiums, deductibles or both. When the underinsured were added to the uninsured, this represented 42% of adult Americans. Like the uninsured, this forces the underinsured to think twice before they have treatment with more than half either refusing treatment or struggling with debt because of treatment.
In the push for healthcare reform, the focus has been on the uninsured. But this fails to recognize the injustice suffered by the underinsured. No one should be forced to choose between refusing needed treatment and potential bankruptcy. It is therefore going to be an interesting year in prospect as the reform slowly comes into force. Both the poor and the middle class need access to cheap health insurance with reasonably comprehensive coverage. This will further squeeze the insurance industry because it will be denied the right to refuse coverage to those with pre-existing conditions and will be forced to establish group health insurance for those who have struggled to find affordable plans. In all of this, the key to success will be the ability of government and the insurers to impose more control over costs. President Obama has negotiated with the pharmaceutical industry and there is some agreement to hold down prices for those in Medicare and Medicaid. The for-profit healthcare industry also sees some self-interest in moderating its price increases and has given undertakings to the Administration. If some of the pressure is removed from the insurance industry, premium rates will stabilize and the reforms should offer a more fair system to all with a health plan. We can only hope for the best while we wait and see what happens.