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.
Health insurance isn’t just about access to healthcare – it’s also about protection from financial ruin. Insurance can be expensive, but lacking coverage can cost much more. No one is invincible; anybody can be injured in a car accident, or receive an unexpected diagnosis. While it’s unclear whether poor health begets financial insecurity or vice versa, the correlation between not having health insurance and financial instability is indisputable. Indeed, medical debt is the leading cause of personal bankruptcy filings among Americans.
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.
Employer-sponsored health insurance is paid for by businesses on behalf of their employees as part of an employee benefit package. Most private (non-government) health coverage in the US is employment-based. Nearly all large employers in America offer group health insurance to their employees. The typical large-employer PPO plan is typically more generous than either Medicare or the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program Standard Option.
Most provider markets (especially hospitals) are also highly concentrated—roughly 80%, according to criteria established by the FTC and Department of Justice—so insurers usually have little choice about which providers to include in their networks, and consequently little leverage to control the prices they pay. Large insurers frequently negotiate most-favored nation clauses with providers, agreeing to raise rates significantly while guaranteeing that providers will charge other insurers higher rates.
The resulting programme is profession-based: all people working are required to pay a portion of their income to a not-for-profit health insurance fund, which mutualises the risk of illness, and which reimburses medical expenses at varying rates. Children and spouses of insured people are eligible for benefits, as well. Each fund is free to manage its own budget, and used to reimburse medical expenses at the rate it saw fit, however following a number of reforms in recent years, the majority of funds provide the same level of reimbursement and benefits.
Network-based plans may be either closed or open. With a closed network, enrollees' expenses are generally only covered when they go to network providers. Only limited services are covered outside the network—typically only emergency and out-of-area care. Most traditional HMOs were closed network plans. Open network plans provide some coverage when an enrollee uses non-network provider, generally at a lower benefit level to encourage the use of network providers. Most preferred provider organization plans are open-network (those that are not are often described as exclusive provider organizations, or EPOs), as are point of service (POS) plans.
According to a 2007 study, about 59% of employers at small firms (3–199 workers) in the US provide employee health insurance. The percentage of small firms offering coverage has been dropping steadily since 1999. The study notes that cost remains the main reason cited by small firms who do not offer health benefits. Small firms that are new are less likely to offer coverage than ones that have been in existence for a number of years. For example, using 2005 data for firms with fewer than 10 employees, 43% of those that had been in existence at least 20 years offered coverage, but only 24% of those that had been in existence less than 5 years did. The volatility of offer rates from year to year also appears to be higher for newer small businesses.
The US has a joint federal and state system for regulating insurance, with the federal government ceding primary responsibility to the states under the McCarran-Ferguson Act. States regulate the content of health insurance policies and often require coverage of specific types of medical services or health care providers. State mandates generally do not apply to the health plans offered by large employers, because of the preemption clause of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.
A 2011 study found that there were 2.1 million hospital stays for uninsured patients, accounting for 4.4% ($17.1 billion) of total aggregate inpatient hospital costs in the United States. The costs of treating the uninsured must often be absorbed by providers as charity care, passed on to the insured via cost-shifting and higher health insurance premiums, or paid by taxpayers through higher taxes.