In most other nations, insurance for medical care is called sickness insurance, and it covers sick people. In the United States, we have “health insurance,” and its major carriers — commercial insurers, large employers, and increasingly government programs — strive to avoid sick people and cover only the healthy. This perverse logic at the heart of the American health insurance system is the key to reform debates.
Focusing on sick people versus healthy people might seem a strange way to view the coverage issue. Most discussions of insurance categorize people into other groupings: the insured versus the uninsured; Caucasian whites versus other racial and ethnic groups; men versus women; poor and low-income people versus everybody else; children, adults, and the elderly; or citizens versus immigrants and undocumented aliens. More recently, health researchers have begun talking about “vulnerable populations,” using most of the same demographic groupings and adding other illness-inducing factors such as social isolation, stress, and impoverished neighborhoods. But as I will show, insurance plans now use premiums, cost-sharing, and other design features in ways that indirectly divide each of these groups into the sick and the healthy, to the detriment of the sick. By shifting the costs of illness onto people who use medical care — that is, sick people — market-oriented reforms of the last few decades have eroded insurance in the name of strengthening it.