The recent debate over the potential repeal and replacement of the ACA, with the current focus on coverage for preexisting conditions, has drawn a great deal of attention to the concept of health insurance. While our political leaders are constantly talking about it, few of them seem to understand the “insurance” component of health insurance. As a result, much of what they say about preexisting condition coverage is gibberish. We are here to set the record straight.
At its most basic level, insurance provides protection against the risk of unexpected financial losses. We focus on the term risk because if we were risk neutral (i.e., we were indifferent between sure things and actuarially equivalent gambles), then we would not value this protection. But nearly all of us are risk averse, meaning that we would rather not face having to dramatically reduce consumption of everything we enjoy in the event we are hit with an astronomical medical bill. Because we are risk averse, health insurance improves our collective well-being by helping us collectively smooth our consumption. Everyone who purchases insurance consumes somewhat less of everything else when healthy, but does not have to consume dramatically less when sick.