Many reform advocates have claimed that the federal government should mandate a package of insurance benefits that all private and public health insurers would be legally compelled to provide. Switzerland is one country in which the government defines a what the insurance benefit will be for all standard health insurers. The National Coalition on Health Care also proposes “…requiring insurers to establish explicitly separate premiums for the core benefit package.” Is having the federal or state government mandate a minimum benefit package a good idea?
Most neo-classical economists would say that having the government mandate an insurance package is a bad idea. Regulation restricts choice. If consumers would prefer an insurance company to cover mental illness and another person would prefer their insurance company have more generous coverage for cancer treatment, then it would be welfare destroying to eliminate the individual’s choice. Even if regulators were able to determine an ‘optimal’ benefit package–even a benefit package deemed optimal for society is unlikely to be optimal for each individual–this optimality could only be achieved in a static setting. When new medical technologies and procedures became available would they be adopted? Adopting unproven medical technologies may not increase quality of care, but would increase the cost of premiums. Adopting technologies too late will harm the sick patients who could benefit from these advances.
Another issue is who would be deciding which procedures are included. Whether it is Congress or a medical “Federal Reserve,” these groups would be influenced by lobbying from the AMA, pharmaceutical companies, and patient interest groups. Further, Congressmen will have their own favorite diseases that they will include in the basic coverage plan, even when funding coverage for these diseases may not be as beneficial as for other diseases.
One benefit of the standardized medical package is that people would better be able to comparison shop. Currently, it is nearly impossible to determine what your insurance company covers unless you are an expert. With a mandated core benefit package, insurance companies would only be able to compete on the dimensions of price, service, and reputation. They would be no competition with regards to which procedures were covered. Also, this would help to attenuate the problem of adverse selection. Many insurers currently do not offer generous coverage since they know by doing so, they will attract the sickest individuals and likely decrease their profits.
Further with a standard benefit package there should be lower legal costs for both the insurance companies and patients. With a clear core benefit package, litigation would not be eliminated but it would certainly be curtailed since much of the payment ambiguity would be cleared up.
Regardless of whether or not you prefer a minimum insurance benefit, the government should allow supplementary insurance markets to exist. In this way, those who prefer more generous coverage could purchase additional insurance. Further, it is likely that supplemental insurance would be the first-adopters of new technology and could provide a testing group as to whether or not a new medical treatment should eventually be included into the core benefit package.