Back to Basics: What Is a Health Insurance Death Spiral?

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This is one of those topics that comes up in healthcare reform discussions regularly, but we don’t often take the time to explain it. It’s not currently a trending topic, but it’s a perennial one, so it will come up again sooner or later.

Let’s start with an assumption: All people want health insurance.

But people’s willingness to pay for health insurance varies greatly. If it’s free, few would refuse. If it costs $200 per month, many more would refuse. If it costs $2,000 per month, most would refuse.

What determines whether someone thinks the premium is worth it?

A few things. The two biggest factors are (1) how much healthcare that person expects to need that year and (2) how much money they have. If a person expects to be hospitalized multiple times that year, a $2,000/month premium is probably going to be a lot less (even with the deductible and copays) than going without insurance. If a person is fairly wealthy and has the foresight to recognize that unpredictable healthcare expenses could be financially catastrophic, they would probably also be willing to pay the $2,000 deductible. But healthy people and poor people (and especially poor healthy people) are much less willing to spend much on premiums.

Ok, that was most of the background information, and here’s one more thing. If an insurance company is allowed to charge whatever they want for a premium, you know what they would do? They would collect a bunch of data on every insurance applicant and use some smart actuaries to calculate each applicant’s average expected annual healthcare spending, and then they would use that number (plus a percentage) for the person’s premium that year.

As you would expect, this would work fine for the young and healthy who will have low premiums. But for most others, it can be pretty expensive to the point that many would rather choose to forego insurance.

Now we can talk about how to cause a death spiral.

To solve that problem of premiums being too expensive for the people who probably need insurance the most and ending up uninsured, the government can make a simple policy that requires insurance companies to charge everyone the same premium. (For simplicity, I’m saying they will only have a single premium, although in reality they usually say something like, “You can only charge the sickest person 3x what you charge the healthiest person, and you can only use these few variables to decide who is sick and who is healthy.”)

What happens? The sick people get a great deal, and the healthy people end up subsidizing the sick people’s premiums.

This enables the sick people to get insurance, although now that the healthy people’s premiums are so expensive relative to what they’re getting out of it (many of them probably don’t even end up using their insurance most years), they say, “Forget that. Buying insurance isn’t worth it anymore.” And they drop out of the insurance pool in favor of going uninsured.

What happens then? All the healthiest people are no longer in the insurance pool, so the average expected healthcare spending per person will be much higher the next year. Therefore, the insurer is forced to raise premiums accordingly.

And, predictably, when those new higher premiums come out, again the healthiest in the insurance pool will say, “Last year it was just barely worth it for me, but this year with this crazy increased premium, it’s not worth it.” And they drop out of the insurance pool. This is about the time when the insurance companies get labeled as greedy, too.

The next year, premiums rise again, and more people forego insurance.

Do you see the pattern? That’s a death spiral. And, again, it’s caused by requiring insurance companies to restrict the degree to which they can charge different people different premiums.

There is a way to prevent this, though. If, at the same time as restricting premiums, the government also creates some sort of incentive for healthy people to stay in the insurance pool, it can prevent them from leaving.

That’s what the individual mandate was for. It was the government saying, “Hey, we need you healthy people to be in the insurance pool subsidizing the sicker people’s premiums, so we’re going to persuade you to do that by making you pay a fee (tax) if you don’t buy health insurance.”

It didn’t work very well. Many people didn’t know about it, and those who did figured they’d rather pay a relatively small tax than a relatively large insurance premium. That’s why premiums in the private market rose so quickly after the Affordable Care Act was passed. Not enough healthy people joined the insurance pool, and more dropped out each year. It wasn’t exactly a precipitous death spiral, but that is the direction it was trending.

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