Fairness versus welfare in health insurance content regulation

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Regulating the content of health insurance contracts, where the government determines which medical treatments and services must be covered, creates tension between principles of fairness and principles of welfare economics. Principles of fairness, after all, may require that all medical losses be shared within a community, while principles of welfare economics would advocate regulation only where there is some form of market failure that leads to an inefficient or suboptimal result. As part of recently enacted federal health care reform, the federal government will, for the first time, have the primary responsibility of regulating the content of privately financed health insurance policies, although the federal government is given the statutory option to borrow heavily from existing state regulation. This Article provides the first comprehensive study of the state legislative process with respect to health insurance content regulation. In the states studied, the author finds that both fairness and welfare claims influence mandate passage, with little reliance by legislators on outside evidence substantiating welfare claims. In contrast to theoretical writings on health insurance content regulation, which emphasize market failure as the primary justification for mandates, this current study finds that mandates were rarely premised on correcting defects in the insurance market. Rather, the justifications provided tend to be more paternalistic in orientation, often based on a desire to increase suboptimal utilization of a particular medical treatment or service regardless of the reason why individuals lack coverage. Even where there is an independent, expert commission providing robust data on proposed regulation, bills with virtually no impact on either health insurance coverage or treatment utilization are passed. Given these findings, this Article argues that the federal government should be hesitant to rely upon existing state-level regulation when it defines "essential health benefits" as part of health care reform.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)139-229
Number of pages91
JournalUniversity of Illinois Law Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 8 2012


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