Government Regulation of Insurance
What is the Government Regulation of Insurance?
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What is the Government Regulation of Insurance?
The U.S. insurance industry is primarily regulated at the state level. Since 1871 there has been a National Association of Insurance Commissioners that brings together these state regulators to exchange information and strategies. The state insurance regulators typically attempt to accomplish two things: to keep the price of insurance low and to ensure that everyone has insurance. These goals, however, can conflict with each other and also become easily entangled in politics.
If insurance premiums are set at actuarially fair levels, so that people end up paying an amount that accurately reflects their risk group, certain people will end up paying considerable amounts. For example, if health insurance companies were trying to cover people who already have a chronic disease like AIDS, or who were elderly, they would charge these groups very high premiums for health insurance, because their expected health care costs are quite high. Women in the age bracket 18–44 consume, on average, about 65% more in health care spending than men. Young male drivers have more car accidents than young female drivers. Thus, actuarially fair insurance would tend to charge young men much more for car insurance than young women. Because people in high-risk groups would find themselves charged so heavily for insurance, they might choose not to buy insurance at all.
State insurance regulators have sometimes reacted by passing rules that attempt to set low premiums for insurance. Over time, however, the fundamental law of insurance must hold: the average amount individuals receive cannot exceed the average amount paid in premiums. When rules are passed to keep premiums low, insurance companies try to avoid insuring any high-risk or even medium-risk parties. If a state legislature passes strict rules requiring insurance companies to sell to everyone at low prices, the insurance companies always have the option of withdrawing from doing business in that state. For example, the insurance regulators in New Jersey are well-known for attempting to keep auto insurance premiums low, and more than 20 different insurance companies stopped doing business in the state in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Similarly, in 2009, State Farm announced that it was withdrawing from selling property insurance in Florida.
In short, government regulators cannot force companies to charge low prices and provide high levels of insurance coverage—and thus take losses—for a sustained period of time. If insurance premiums are set below the actuarially fair level for a certain group, some other group will have to make up the difference. There are two other groups who can make up the difference: taxpayers or other insurance buyers.
In some industries, the U.S. government has decided free markets will not provide insurance at an affordable price, and so the government pays for it directly. For example, private health insurance is too expensive for many people whose incomes are too low. To combat this, the U.S. government, together with the states, runs the Medicaid program, which provides health care to those with low incomes. Private health insurance also does not work well for the elderly, because their average health care costs can be very high. Thus, the U.S. government started the Medicare program, which provides health insurance to all those over age 65. Other government-funded health-care programs are aimed at military veterans, as an added benefit, and children in families with relatively low incomes.
Another common government intervention in insurance markets is to require that everyone buy certain kinds of insurance. For example, most states legally require car owners to buy auto insurance. Likewise, when a bank loans someone money to buy a home, the person is typically required to have homeowner’s insurance, which protects against fire and other physical damage (like hailstorms) to the home. A legal requirement that everyone must buy insurance means that insurance companies do not need to worry that those with low risks will avoid buying insurance. Since insurance companies do not need to fear adverse selection, they can set their prices based on an average for the market, and those with lower risks will, to some extent, end up subsidizing those with higher risks. However, even when laws are passed requiring people to purchase insurance, insurance companies cannot be compelled to sell insurance to everyone who asks—at least not at low cost. Thus, insurance companies will still try to avoid selling insurance to those with high risks whenever possible.
The government cannot pass laws that make the problems of moral hazard and adverse selection disappear, but the government can make political decisions that certain groups should have insurance, even though the private market would not otherwise provide that insurance. Also, the government can impose the costs of that decision on taxpayers or on other buyers of insurance.