Private Health Insurance in France: Between Europeanization and Collectivization

September 2019 | Cyril Benoît, Gaël Coron | Original Scholarship

Policy Points:

  • Private health insurance (PHI) in France has been facing critical changes over the past 30 years. A complementary and voluntary scheme, it has been historically dominated by nonprofit entities. However, the share of for-profit insurance companies in the sector has significantly increased. Nonprofit firms also changed their strategies and mimicked some for-profit behaviors.
  • The present paper argues that this process is a result of the conflict-provoking coevolution of the insurance and health care sectors. Trying to improve the regulation of the insurance industry as whole, two European directives first jeopardized the business model of nonprofit entities. Then, two national reforms designed to improve health coverage significantly increased competition among insurers, notably in the area of corporate-level contracts.
  • Decoupling the insurance and health care sectors has become a major source of policy feedback and unexpected outcomes of reforms affecting the very organization of PHI.

Context: In France, private health insurance (PHI) has an exceptionally high level of coverage and accounts for 13.7% of health expenditures. A complementary and voluntary scheme, it has been historically dominated by nonprofit, mutual benefit societies. Over the past 20 years, however, the market share of for-profit insurance companies has increased by 47%. Financialization of the field developed, and competition based on new risk management strategies also increased. The broad aim of this paper is to characterize and to elucidate the causes of this trend. More specifically, we are interested in how and to what extent a series of supranational and national policies contributed to this situation.

Method: Our data come from three sources. We first reviewed documents published by health insurers, government reports, and newspaper articles. We then conducted two semistructured interview campaigns between September 2017 and May 2018. The first mostly covered private and public actors and their involvement in European Union (EU) policymaking (n=21). The second series of interviews was conducted with another group of actors directly involved at the French level (n = 16).

Findings: Our findings support preliminary observations. PHI in France, we argue, is indeed facing a development of competition and market-like instruments. Four major policies (two EU directives and two national reforms) played a significant role in this outcome. Surprisingly, however, it has never been the purpose of legislators and policymakers: while EU directives created a regulatory framework for insurance activities within the Single Market, policies adopted at the national level initially aimed at improving health coverage. We show that it is the interactions and the noncoordination among all of these policies that explain their unexpected outcome.

Conclusions: The trend described in this paper is twofold. The first is Europeanization, as PHI in France is increasingly affected by EU legislation. Since this framework tends to favor larger firms and for-profit companies, a reduction in statutory coverage can no longer be considered a quasi-neutral transfer from (publicly owned) social security to nonprofit providers. At the same time, PHI is shifting toward collectivization: as competition increases, complementary health coverage is becoming gradually standardized and based at the corporate level. Together, these changes are likely to reduce freedom of choice and individual welfare, an assumption supported by studies published on the most recent period.

Keywords: France, health policy, health insurance, Europeanization, regulation.

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Published 2019
DOI: 10.1111/1468-0009.12420