Health insurance is an insurance that covers the whole or a part of the risk of a person incurring medical expenses, spreading the risk over a large number of persons. By estimating the overall risk of health care and health system expenses over the risk pool, an insurer can develop a routine finance structure, such as a monthly premium or payroll tax, to provide the money to pay for the health care benefits specified in the insurance agreement.[1] The benefit is administered by a central organization such as a government agency, private business, or not-for-profit entity.
However, with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, effective since 2014, federal laws have created some uniformity in partnership with the existing state-based system. Insurers are prohibited from discriminating against or charging higher rates for individuals based on pre-existing medical conditions and must offer a standard set of coverage.[31][32]

The UK's National Health Service (NHS) is a publicly funded healthcare system that provides coverage to everyone normally resident in the UK. It is not strictly an insurance system because (a) there are no premiums collected, (b) costs are not charged at the patient level and (c) costs are not pre-paid from a pool. However, it does achieve the main aim of insurance which is to spread financial risk arising from ill-health. The costs of running the NHS (est. £104 billion in 2007-8)[39] are met directly from general taxation. The NHS provides the majority of health care in the UK, including primary care, in-patient care, long-term health care, ophthalmology, and dentistry.


Approximately 19 percent of Americans had coverage under Medicaid in 2016, and 14 percent had coverage under Medicare. These are government-run programs, as opposed to private coverage. However, the state and federal governments contract with private insurers to offer Medicaid managed care plans and Medicare Advantage plans, all of which are run by private insurers (in many cases, the same private insurers that offer employer-sponsored and individual market plans to the rest of the population).
According to a 2000 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, Congress passed legislation creating "two new vehicles Association Health Plans (AHPs) and HealthMarts, to facilitate the sale of health insurance coverage to employees of small firms" in response to concerns about the "large and growing number of uninsured people in the United States."[82]
Over time, the operations of many Blue Cross and Blue Shield operations have become more similar to those of commercial health insurance companies.[101] However, some Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans continue to serve as insurers of last resort.[102] Similarly, the benefits offered by Blues plans, commercial insurers, and HMOs are converging in many respects because of market pressures. One example is the convergence of preferred provider organization (PPO) plans offered by Blues and commercial insurers and the point of service plans offered by HMOs. Historically, commercial insurers, Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans, and HMOs might be subject to different regulatory oversight in a state (e.g., the Department of Insurance for insurance companies, versus the Department of Health for HMOs). Today, it is common for commercial insurance companies to have HMOs as subsidiaries, and for HMOs to have insurers as subsidiaries (the state license for an HMO is typically different from that for an insurance company).[19][95][103] At one time the distinctions between traditional indemnity insurance, HMOs and PPOs were very clear; today, it can be difficult to distinguish between the products offered by the various types of organization operating in the market.[104]
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.[12] 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.[13]
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.[citation needed] Lifetime maximums can be very low as well.[citation needed]
Private insurers offer a variety of supplemental coverages in both the group and individual markets. These are not designed to provide the primary source of medical or disability protection for an individual, but can assist with unexpected expenses and provide additional peace of mind for insureds. Supplemental coverages include Medicare supplement insurance, hospital indemnity insurance, dental insurance, vision insurance, accidental death and dismemberment insurance and specified disease insurance.[19]
Before the development of medical expense insurance, patients were expected to pay health care costs out of their own pockets, under what is known as the fee-for-service business model. During the middle-to-late 20th century, traditional disability insurance evolved into modern health insurance programs. One major obstacle to this development was that early forms of comprehensive health insurance were enjoined by courts for violating the traditional ban on corporate practice of the professions by for-profit corporations.[66] State legislatures had to intervene and expressly legalize health insurance as an exception to that traditional rule. Today, most comprehensive private health insurance programs cover the cost of routine, preventive, and emergency health care procedures, and most prescription drugs (but this is not always the case).

Medicare Advantage plans expand the health insurance options for people with Medicare. Medicare Advantage was created under the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, with the intent to better control the rapid growth in Medicare spending, as well as to provide Medicare beneficiaries more choices. But on average, Medicare Advantage plans cost 12% more than traditional Medicare.[48] The ACA took steps to align payments to Medicare Advantage plans with the cost of traditional Medicare.


Erica Block is an Editorial Fellow at HealthCare.com, where she gets to combine her interest in healthcare policy with her penchant for creating online content. When she isn't reading or writing, Erica can be found wandering around Brooklyn, playing softball, or listening to podcasts. She counts music, rescue dogs, and lumberjack sports among her greatest passions. Follow Erica on Twitter: @EricaDaleBlock


In 2003, according to the Heartland Institute's Merrill Matthews, association group health insurance plans offered affordable health insurance to "some 6 million Americans." Matthews responded to the criticism that said that some associations work too closely with their insurance providers. He said, "You would expect the head of AARP to have a good working relationship with the CEO of Prudential, which sells policies to AARP's seniors."[83]
Effective group health plan years beginning after September 23, 2010, if an employer-sponsored health plan allows employees' children to enroll in coverage, then the health plan must allow employees' adult children to enroll as well as long as the adult child is not yet age 26. Some group health insurance plans may also require that the adult child not be eligible for other group health insurance coverage, but only before 2014.[78]

In the late 1990s federal legislation had been proposed to "create federally-recognized Association Health Plans which was then "referred to in some bills as 'Small Business Health Plans.'[79] The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), which is the "standard-setting and regulatory of chief insurance regulators from all states, the District of Columbia and territories, cautioned against implementing AHPs citing "plan failures like we saw The Multiple Employer Welfare Arrangements (MEWAs) in the 1990s."[80] "[S]mall businesses in California such as dairy farmers, car dealers, and accountants created AHPs "to buy health insurance on the premise that a bigger pool of enrollees would get them a better deal."[81] A November 2017 article in the Los Angeles Times described how there were only 4 remaining AHPs in California. Many of the AHPs filed for bankruptcy, "sometimes in the wake of fraud." State legislators were forced to pass "sweeping changes in the 1990s" that almost made AHPs extinct.[81]
Cost assistance is available to help lower the monthly expense of health insurance. Know as a tax credit or tax subsidy, federal money helps those that make between 100%-400% of the Federal Poverty Level. (For an individual that is between $11,770 – $47,080, depending on the state.) With cost assistance, individuals paid an average of less than $100 a month for a plan on the marketplace in 2015. That is a $268 savings each month.
The public option was featured in three bills considered by the United States House of Representatives in 2009: the proposed Affordable Health Care for America Act (H.R. 3962), which was passed by the House in 2009, its predecessor, the proposed America's Affordable Health Choices Act (H.R. 3200), and a third bill, the Public Option Act, also referred to as the "Medicare You Can Buy Into Act", (H.R. 4789). In the first two bills, the public option took the form of a Qualified Health Benefit Plan competing with similar private insurance plans in an internet-based exchange or marketplace, enabling citizens and small businesses to purchase health insurance meeting a minimum federal standard. The Public Option Act, in contrast, would have allowed all citizens and permanent residents to buy into a public option by participating in the public Medicare program. Individuals covered by other employer plans or by state insurance plans such as Medicare would have not been eligible to obtain coverage from the exchange. The federal government's health insurance plan would have been financed entirely by premiums without subsidy from the Federal government,[3] although some plans called for government seed money to get the programs started.[4]
On the whole, uninsured Americans have worse health outcomes; cancers and other deadly diseases, for example, are more likely to be diagnosed at later stages in uninsured people. Uninsured pregnant women use fewer prenatal services and uninsured children and adults are less likely than their insured counterparts to have a primary care doctor whom they trust.
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In March 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives passed The Small Business Health Fairness Act (H.R. 1101), which established "requirements for creating a federally-certified AHP, including for certification itself, sponsors and boards of trustees, participation and coverage, nondiscrimination, contribution rates, and voluntary termination."[79][84]
The chief executive of Aetna, Ron Williams, argued against the public option based on issues of fairness. On the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Williams noted that a public option creates a situation where "you have in essence a player in the industry who is a participant in the market, but also is a regulator and a referee in the game". He said, "we think that those two roles really don't work well."[41]
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.[citation needed] Lifetime maximums can be very low as well.[citation needed]

Healthcare in Switzerland is universal[34] and is regulated by the Swiss Federal Law on Health Insurance. Health insurance is compulsory for all persons residing in Switzerland (within three months of taking up residence or being born in the country).[35][36] It is therefore the same throughout the country and avoids double standards in healthcare. Insurers are required to offer this basic insurance to everyone, regardless of age or medical condition. They are not allowed to make a profit off this basic insurance, but can on supplemental plans.[34]
Marcia Angell, M. D., Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and former Editor-in-Chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, believes that the result of a public option would be more "under-55's" opting to pay the fine rather than purchase insurance under a public option scenario, instead advocating lowering the Medicare age to 55.[40]
ageing, menopause and puberty; AIDS/HIV; allergies or allergic disorders; birth control, conception, sexual problems and sex changes; chronic conditions; complications from excluded or restricted conditions/ treatment; convalescence, rehabilitation and general nursing care ; cosmetic, reconstructive or weight loss treatment; deafness; dental/oral treatment (such as fillings, gum disease, jaw shrinkage, etc); dialysis; drugs and dressings for out-patient or take-home use† ; experimental drugs and treatment; eyesight; HRT and bone densitometry; learning difficulties, behavioural and developmental problems; overseas treatment and repatriation; physical aids and devices; pre-existing or special conditions; pregnancy and childbirth; screening and preventive treatment; sleep problems and disorders; speech disorders; temporary relief of symptoms.[40] († = except in exceptional circumstances)
In January 2013, Representative Jan Schakowsky and 44 other U.S. House of Representatives Democrats introduced H.R. 261, the "Public Option Deficit Reduction Act", which would amend the 2010 Affordable Care Act to create a public option. The bill would set up a government-run health insurance plan with premiums 5% to 7% percent lower than private insurance, with the Congressional Budget Office estimating a reduction in the United States public debt by $104 billion over 10 years.[12]

The shared responsibility provision is part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as ACA or Obamacare. The goal is to ensure that all US citizens and permanent residents have access to quality health insurance. Any non-resident aliens, including international students on F, J, M and Q visas (and certain family members of students) are not subject to the individual mandate for their first 5 years in the U.S. All other J categories (teacher, trainee, work and travel, au pair, high school, etc.) are not subject to the individual mandate for 2 years (out of the past six).
Efforts to pass a national pool were unsuccessful for many years. With the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it became easier for people with pre-existing conditions to afford regular insurance, since all insurers are fully prohibited from discriminating against or charging higher rates for any individuals based on pre-existing medical conditions.[31][32] Therefore, most of the state-based pools shut down.[33] As of 2017, some remain due to statutes which have not been updated, but they also may cover people with gaps in coverage such as undocumented immigrants[33] or Medicare-eligible individuals under the age of 65.[33]
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