Many Americans rely on their automobiles to get to work. No automobile means no job, no rent or mortgage money, no food. A single parent, struggling to make ends meet in the suburbs with 100,000 miles on the odometer, would presumably welcome the guaranteed opportunity for low-priced insurance that would take care of every possible repair on her auto until the day that it reaches 200,000 miles or falls apart, whichever comes first. Especially if the insurance is valid regardless of whether she even changes the oil in the interim.
So why aren’t the auto insurance companies writing such coverage, either directly or through used auto dealers? And given the importance of reliable transportation, why isn’t the public demanding such coverage? The answer is that both auto insurers and the public know that such insurance can’t be written for a premium the insured can afford, while still allowing the insurers to stay solvent and make a profit. As a society, we intuitively understand that the costs associated with taking care of every mechanical need of an old automobile, particularly in the absence of regular maintenance, aren’t insurable. Yet we don’t seem to have these same intuitions with respect to health insurance.
If we pull the emotions out of health insurance, which is admittedly hard to do even for this author, and look at health insurance from the economic perspective, there are several insights from auto insurance that can illuminate the design, risk selection, and rating of health insurance.
Auto insurance comes in two forms: the traditional insurance you buy from your agent or direct from an insurance company, and warranties that are purchased from auto manufacturers and dealers. Both are risk transfer and sharing devices and I’ll generically refer to both as insurance. Because auto third-party liability insurance has no equivalent in health insurance, for traditional auto insurance, I’ll examine only collision and comprehensive insurance — insurance covering the vehicle — and not third-party liability insurance.
The following are some commonly accepted principles from auto insurance:
* Bad maintenance voids certain insurance. If an automobile owner never changes the oil, the auto’s power train warranty is void. In fact, not only does the oil need to be changed, the change needs to be performed by a certified mechanic and documented. Collision insurance doesn’t cover cars purposefully driven over a cliff.
* The best insurance is offered for new models. Bumper-to-bumper warranties are offered only on new cars. As they roll off the assembly line, automobiles have a low and relatively consistent risk profile, satisfying the actuarial test for insurance pricing. Furthermore, auto manufacturers usually wrap at least some coverage into the price of the new auto in order to encourage an ongoing relationship with the owner.
* Limited insurance is offered for old model autos. Increasingly limited insurance is offered for old model autos. The bumper-to-bumper warranty expires, the power train warranty eventually expires, and the amount of collision and comprehensive insurance steadily decreases based on the market value of the auto.
* Certain older autos qualify for additional insurance. Certain older autos can qualify for additional coverage, either in terms of warranties for used autos or increased collision and comprehensive insurance for vintage autos. But such insurance is offered only after a careful inspection of the automobile itself.
* No insurance is offered for normal wear and tear. Wiper blades need replacement, brake pads wear out, and bumpers get dings. These aren’t insurable events. To the extent that a new car dealer will sometimes cover some of these costs, we intuitively understand that we’re “paying for it” in the cost of the automobile and that it’s “not really” insurance.