Health Insurance Basics: Part 1 | California Employee Benefits

What is Health Insurance and Why is it Important?

Health insurance is a legal entitlement to payment or reimbursement for your health care costs, generally under a contract with a health insurance company. Health insurance provides important financial protection in case you have an accident or sickness. For example, health insurance may help to pay for doctors’ services, medications, hospital care, and special equipment when someone is sick or injured, often in exchange for a monthly premium. It may help cover a stay at a rehabilitation hospital or even a portion of home health care. Heath insurance can also keep a consumer’s costs down when they are not sick. For example, it can help pay for routine check-ups. Most health insurance also covers many preventive services at no cost, such as immunizations and cancer screening and counseling.

What is a Health Insurance Plan (also called a health plan or policy)?

A health insurance plan includes a package of covered health care items and services and sets how much it will pay for those items and services. In other words, a health plan will describe the types of health care items and services it will cover (help pay for), how much it will pay for those items and services (or groups of items and services), and for how long. Plans are often designed to last for a year at a time (known as a “plan year” or “policy year”). A health plan may be a benefit that an employer, union, or other group sponsor provides to employees or members to pay for their health care services.

What are Some Types of Health Care Coverage?

Health care coverage is often grouped into two general categories: private and public. The majority of people in the U.S. have private insurance, which they receive through their employer (which may include nongovernment employers or government employers at the federal, state or local level), buy directly from an insurance company, or buy through a Health Insurance Marketplace®.1 Some people have public health care coverage through government programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, or the Veteran’s Health Administration. Health care coverage can also be categorized by the scope of benefits it offers or how long the coverage lasts. Health insurance often includes a wide range of covered services, including emergency and nonemergency services as well mental health benefits. Some people have very limited insurance plans, such as plans with benefits for only specific conditions or diseases (included in the list of “excepted benefits” under the Affordable Care Act, such as vision-only plans or cancer plans).

As noted above, many health plans offer coverage for a year. However, some plans offer coverage for less than 12 months, including plans created to fill gaps in coverage. These plans are called short-term limited duration plans, and they often offer fewer benefits as compared to other health plans and lack some of the consumer protections available under other forms of coverage.

Self-Insured Employer Plans vs. Fully-Insured Plans

For consumers who receive health insurance through their employer, there are typically two different funding structures employers use to provide coverage:

  • Some employers offer health care coverage to their employees through a self-insured plan. This is a type of health plan that is usually offered by larger companies where the employer collects contributions from employees via payroll deductions and takes on the responsibility of paying all related medical claims. These employers can contract with a thirdparty administrator (in some cases, a health insurance company acting as an administrator) for services such as enrollment, claims processing, and managing provider networks. Alternatively, these employers can self-administer the services. Self-insured plans are regulated by the federal government and are generally not subject to state insurance laws.
  • A fully-insured employer plan is a health plan purchased by an employer from an insurance company. The insurance company, instead of the employer, takes on the responsibility of paying employees’ and dependents’ medical claims in exchange for a premium from the employer.

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