Health Insurance: Understanding What It Covers

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What are "covered services"?

Your health insurance policy is an agreement between you and your insurance company. The policy lists a package of medical benefits such as tests, drugs and treatment services. The insurance company agrees to cover the cost of certain benefits listed in your policy. These are called "covered services."

Your policy also lists the kinds of services that are not covered by your insurance company. You have to pay for any uncovered medical care that you receive.

How do I know which services are covered?

If you already have an insurance plan and want to keep it, review your benefits to see which services are covered. Your plan may not cover the same services that you would receive if you signed up for a new plan via a Health Insurance Marketplace.

Essential Health Benefits

If you buy a plan through a Health Insurance Marketplace, your insurance will cover the preventive services and at least 10 essential health benefits required by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). All private health insurance plans offered in federally facilitated marketplaces will offer the following 10 essential health benefits:

  • Ambulatory patient services (outpatient care you get without being admitted to a hospital)
  • Emergency services
  • Hospitalization (such as surgery)
  • Maternity and newborn care (care before and after your baby is born)
  • Mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment (this includes counseling and psychotherapy)
  • Prescription drugs
  • Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices (services and devices to help people with injuries, disabilities, or chronic conditions gain or recover mental and physical skills)
  • Laboratory services
  • Preventive and wellness services and chronic disease management
  • Pediatric services

State-run marketplaces will also be required to offer 10 EHBs, but the list of benefits may differ from those offered by federally facilitated marketplaces. Plans may offer additional coverage.

Beginning in 2015, all health insurance plans will be required to meet these minimums, whether they are sold via a Marketplace or in the private market.

Preventive Services

Preventive services can detect disease or help prevent illness or other health problems. The types of preventive services you need depend on your gender, age, medical history, and family history. Some preventive services covered under the ACA include blood pressure screening, cervical cancer screening, HIV screening, immunizations, and well-woman visits. Coverage for preventive services also varies by state, so review the services covered carefully before choosing a plan.

View a complete list of preventive services covered by insurance plans that meet ACA requirements.

What if I already have an insurance plan I want to keep?

You can keep your current plan until December 31, 2014. At the end of 2014, you may need to change plans because yours does not offer comprehensive coverage, or your insurer may choose to drop the plan instead of creating a new option that meets ACA requirements.

What is a medical necessity? Is that different from a covered service?

Keep in mind that a medical necessity is not the same as a medical benefit. A medical necessity is something that your doctor has decided is necessary. A medical benefit is something that your insurance plan has agreed to cover. In some cases, your doctor might decide that you need medical care that is not covered by your insurance policy.

Insurance companies determine what tests, drugs and services they will cover. These choices are based on their understanding of the kinds of medical care that most patients need. Your insurance company's choices may mean that the test, drug or service you need isn't covered by your policy.

What should I do?

Your doctor will try to be familiar with your insurance coverage so he or she can provide you with covered care. However, there are so many different insurance plans that it's not possible for your doctor to know the specific details of each plan. By understanding your insurance coverage, you can help your doctor recommend medical care that is covered in your plan.

  • Take the time to read your insurance policy. It's better to know what your insurance company will pay for before you receive a service, get tested or fill a prescription. Some kinds of care may have to be approved by your insurance company before your doctor can provide them.
  • If you still have questions about your coverage, call your insurance company and ask a representative to explain it.
  • Remember that your insurance company, not your doctor, makes decisions about what will be paid for and what will not.

What happens if my doctor recommends care that isn't covered by my insurance?

Most of the things your doctor recommends will be covered by your plan, but some may not. When you have a test or treatment that isn't covered, or you get a prescription filled for a drug that isn't covered, your insurance company won't pay the bill. This is often called "denying the claim." You can still obtain the treatment your doctor recommended, but you will have to pay for it yourself.

If your insurance company denies your claim, you have the right to appeal (challenge) the decision. Before you decide to appeal, know your insurance company's appeal process. This should be discussed in your plan handbook. Also, ask your doctor for his or her opinion. If your doctor thinks it's right to make an appeal, he or she may be able to help you through the process.

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 12/13
Created: 09/00

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