Canadians spend more on private health insurance for smaller payouts

Medical Xpress, March 24, 2014

Spending by Canadians on private health insurance has more than doubled over the past 20 years, but insurers paid out a rapidly decreasing proportion as benefits, according to a study published today in the CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).

The study, by University of British Columbia and University of Toronto researchers, shows that overall Canadians paid $6.8 billion more in premiums than they received in benefits in 2011.

Approximately 60 per cent of Canadians have private health insurance. Typically obtained as a benefit of employment or purchased by individuals, private health insurance usually covers prescription drugs, dental services and eye care costs not paid by public health care.

Over the past two decades, the gap between what insurers take in and what they pay out has increased threefold. While private insurers paid out 92 per cent of group plan insurance premiums as benefits in 1991, they paid only 74 per cent in 2011. Canadians who purchased individual plans fared even worse, with just 38 per cent of their premiums returned as benefits in 2011.

“Small businesses and individual entrepreneurs are the hardest hit – they end up paying far more for private health coverage,” says study lead author Michael Law, an assistant professor in UBC’s Centre for Health Services and Policy Research, “It’s essentially an extra health tax on one of our main economic drivers.

“Our findings suggest that private insurers are likely making greater profits, paying higher wages to their executives and employees, or spending more on marketing,” Law adds.…

CMAJ article (first page, paywall for rest):

Although Canada’s single payer system provides excellent coverage for most health care, a market for private health insurance sprung up to cover prescription drugs, dental services and eye care that were not covered by the original program. The for-profit insurers did what they are expected to do. They began by retaining 8 percent of premiums for administrative costs and profits. But after two decades, they now retain as much as 62 percent of premiums for profits, high executive compensation, marketing and other administrative costs.

Although some are calling for more regulation of Canada’s private insurers, they should have learned from the experience in the United States. No amount of regulation will eliminate their inefficiencies and waste. Coverage for these services should be rolled over into the public single payer system.

Opponents protest that Canada cannot afford to offer these benefits in their public program. Nonsense. Most Canadians are already receiving drugs, dental care and eye care, and it is being paid for out-of-pocket or through private insurance. The money is already being spent; it just needs to be spent better. Placing these benefits into the public program would do the following things: 1) administered pricing would ensure value, 2) financial barriers to care would be reduced, 3) financing would be more equitable, and 3) the excesses and waste of the private insurers would be eliminated.

When we enact our single payer system here in the United States, we’ll need to be sure that we don’t make the same mistakes as Canada, though they are far fewer than our blunders.