This month's featured article on Econlib is by health economist Linda Gorman. Gorman points out that Blue Cross was given an important tax advantage over commercial insurers early in the game and that Medicare and Medicaid were modeled on Blue Cross. Gorman also discusses a sector of the U.S. health-insurance market that seems to be working well, namely, the market for individually-purchased health insurance.
Direct-purchase markets pool risk extensively, charging high risk people far lower premiums than their health status might indicate. Most direct-purchase policies are renewable without additional underwriting. This means that as long as he pays the premium, an insured person can keep his policy no matter how sick he gets. Contrary to popular claims, state laws generally prohibit raising a sick individual's premiums unless an insurer also raises the premiums of everyone else in his rating class.
Pauly and Herring report that direct-purchase insureds who had medical expenses about 4 times that of other people enjoyed premiums that were only 1.6 times as high. People who buy a policy and become ill have a strong incentive to continue paying. This may explain why age and sex were generally better predictors of direct-purchase premiums than chronic conditions. Marquis et al. concur, reporting that the individual direct-purchase market is "an important source of long-term coverage for many who purchase it" and that "there is substantial pooling" that "increases over time because people who become sick can continue coverage without new underwriting."