Americans are required to carry medical insurance that meets federally designated minimum standards or face a tax penalty. In certain cases, taxpayers may qualify for an exemption from the penalty if they were unable to obtain insurance due to financial hardship or other situations. Two public health insurance plans, Medicare and the Children's Health Insurance Program, target older individuals and children, respectively. Medicare also serves people with certain disabilities. The program is available to anyone age 65 or older. The CHIP plan has income limits and covers babies and children up to the age of 18.
Coverage limits: Some health insurance policies only pay for health care up to a certain dollar amount. The insured person may be expected to pay any charges in excess of the health plan's maximum payment for a specific service. In addition, some insurance company schemes have annual or lifetime coverage maxima. In these cases, the health plan will stop payment when they reach the benefit maximum, and the policy-holder must pay all remaining costs.
Many health insurance plans place dollar limits upon the claims the insurer will pay over the course of a plan year. Beginning September 23, 2010, PPACA phases annual dollar limits will be phased out over the next 3 years until 2014 when they will not be permitted for most plans. There is an exception to this phase out for Grandfathered Plans. Except for Grandfathered Plans, beginning September 23, 2012 annual limits can be no lower than $2 million. Except for Grandfathered Plans, beginning January 1, 2014, all annual dollar limits on coverage of essential health benefits will be prohibited.
Opposite to high-deductible plans are plans which provide limited benefits—up to a low level—have also been introduced. These limited medical benefit plans pay for routine care and do not pay for catastrophic care, they do not provide equivalent financial security to a major medical plan. Annual benefit limits can be as low as $2,000. Lifetime maximums can be very low as well.
In July 2009, Save Flexible Spending Plans, a national grassroots advocacy organization, was formed to protect against the restricted use of FSAs in health care reform efforts, Save Flexible Spending Accounts is sponsored by the Employers Council on Flexible Compensation (ECFC), a non-profit organization "dedicated to the maintenance and expansion of the private employee benefits on a tax-advantaged basis". ECFC members include companies such as WageWorks Inc., a benefits provider based in San Mateo, California.
As the population covered by Medicare grows, its costs are projected to rise from slightly over 3 percent of GDP to over 6 percent, contributing substantially to the federal budget deficit. In 2011, Medicare was the primary payer for an estimated 15.3 million inpatient stays, representing 47.2 percent ($182.7 billion) of total aggregate inpatient hospital costs in the United States. The Affordable Care Act took some steps to reduce Medicare spending, and various other proposals are circulating to reduce it further.
The insured person has full freedom of choice among the approximately 60 recognised healthcare providers competent to treat their condition (in their region) on the understanding that the costs are covered by the insurance up to the level of the official tariff. There is freedom of choice when selecting an insurance company to which one pays a premium, usually on a monthly basis. The insured person pays the insurance premium for the basic plan up to 8% of their personal income. If a premium is higher than this, the government gives the insured person a cash subsidy to pay for any additional premium.
The Commonwealth Fund completed its thirteenth annual health policy survey in 2010. A study of the survey "found significant differences in access, cost burdens, and problems with health insurance that are associated with insurance design". Of the countries surveyed, the results indicated that people in the United States had more out-of-pocket expenses, more disputes with insurance companies than other countries, and more insurance payments denied; paperwork was also higher although Germany had similarly high levels of paperwork.
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The Affordable Care Act of 2010 was designed primarily to extend health coverage to those without it by expanding Medicaid, creating financial incentives for employers to offer coverage, and requiring those without employer or public coverage to purchase insurance in newly created health insurance exchanges. This requirement for almost all individuals to maintain health insurance is often referred to as the "individual mandate." The CBO has estimated that roughly 33 million who would have otherwise been uninsured will receive coverage because of the act by 2022.