One Reason Insurance Companies Still Reimburse Procedures That Are Considered “Waste”

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Have you ever read about the waste in our healthcare system and wondered why insurers cover so many apparently wasteful services in the first place? You’d think they could just refuse to cover those things and save themselves and the entire system a lot of money.

In Wendy K. Mariner’s Rationing Health Care and the Need for Credible Scarcity: Why Americans Can’t Say No, published in Health Law and Ethics in 1995, she discusses this issue. Even though the article is from 1995, I think her insights still apply.

“When the media report that a woman is dying of advanced breast cancer and her insurer will not pay for high dose chemotherapy and autologous bone marrow transplantation because it considers the procedure experimental or unsuitable for her, the insurer is widely viewed as depriving the woman of a chance at life to which she is entitled. Insurers may argue that the insurance policy expressly excludes such procedures and that the woman agreed to its limits. Such arguments, even when correct, do little to assuage feelings that the insurer is depriving people of care to which they should be entitled. This feeling is exacerbated by the suspicion that the insurer could pay for the treatment if it chose, that it has enough money to buy services that are readily available. Thus, what looks to the insurer as sensible budgeting may appear to the patient as unnecessary and unfair rationing.”

If the insurer chooses to refuse coverage, it saves the cost of that service, but it risks losing a whole lot of its good reputation and future enrollees if the woman goes to the media with her story. I’m sure she could find a journalist willing to jump on that story and write it in a way that convincingly makes the insurer seem like the villain.

So, insurers are rationally covering things that could be considered wasteful. This is just one more example of how parties in the healthcare system respond so rationally to incentives. Which means if we can fix the incentives, we can fix the behaviours in the healthcare system.

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