Private Health Insurance:

Access to Individual Market Coverage May Be Restricted for Applicants with Mental Disorders

GAO-02-339: Published: Feb 28, 2002. Publicly Released: Mar 28, 2002.

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Kathryn G. Allen
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Five percent of adults suffer from serious mental disorders. Although health insurance carriers in a few states guarantee coverage for mental health treatment, in most states individuals with mental disorders face restrictions in purchasing private health insurance for themselves and their families. Eleven states require carriers to accept all applicants regardless of health status, but coverage options vary. Eight of these 11 states require all carriers to guarantee access to coverage sold in this market. In three states, laws apply only to some carriers, such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield, or certain periods of the year. Carriers in nine of the 11 states are also required to limit the extent to which premium rates vary between healthy and unhealthy individuals. In states without guaranteed coverage in the individual market, the seven carriers GAO reviewed would likely deny coverage more frequently for applicants with mental disorders than for applicants with other chronic health conditions. Specifically, for six mental disorders of generally moderate severity, carriers said that they would likely decline applicants 52 percent of the time. State-sponsored high-risk pools are the primary coverage option available to rejected applicants in most states. In 27 of the 34 states where carriers may deny coverage to applicants with mental disorders or other health conditions, high-risk pools offer coverage to applicants denied individual market coverage. The pools are subsidized--generally through assessments on carriers or state tax revenues--and premium rates are generally capped at 125 to 200 percent of standard rates for healthy individuals. Health benefits available under the pools are generally comparable to those available in the individual market, including similar restrictions on mental health benefits; however, benefits for mental disorders or other health conditions are not permanently excluded as they may be in the individual insurance market.

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