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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

NPR: insurance against becoming uninsured - really. United Healthcare is rolling out a new product that lets people pay a premium to guarantee they can buy health insurance in the future if they lose coverage they currently have on the job. NPR's Julie Rovner explains.

JULIE ROVNER: United Healthcare calls the new product Continuity. It's for people who already have jobs with health insurance, but who worry they might lose it. The idea is that if you're healthy enough to get an individual health insurance policy now, you can lock in that coverage, even if you might not need it until later. Richard Collins is head of United's product lines for individuals.

RICHARD COLLINS: It's designed to allow people to buy a policy today and to essentially guarantee their insurability for the future because in most states, medical insurance is underwritten and your eligibility is not guaranteed.

ROVNER: Of course, you have to pay for the privilege of reserving your right to that future coverage. For every month you don't use the coverage, you pay 20 percent of the premium of the individual policy you're basically keeping on hold. Collins himself bought the first continuity policy. It has a $2,500 deductible.

COLLINS: The policy was $250 a month, and my premium for the policy is $50.

ROVNER: That's 20 percent of the premium. So, if at some point, Collins loses his job and his group health insurance, he can activate that coverage and simply pay the full premium. Collins says the product is intended to appeal to baby boomers in their 40s and 50s who may be facing early retirement or job insecurity and want to be sure they can bridge the gap until they're eligible for Medicare. But Robert Laszewski, a health policy analyst and insurance consultant, says he wonders why anyone would want to buy this kind of coverage.

ROBERT LASZEWSKI: I've been in the health insurance business for 35 years. I think I understand the business pretty well. I'm trying to think of somebody who would buy this. It would have to be somebody who wears a belt and suspenders at the same time. I mean, someone who has health insurance that is somehow afraid they're going to get laid off and COBRA won't be enough.

ROVNER: COBRA being the federal law that guarantees you can continue your job-based coverage for 18 months after you lose your job. For one thing, Laszewski says, the mere existence of the new continuity insurance is a bet against the passage of a federal health overhaul anytime soon.

LASZEWSKI: You would only buy this, and United Healthcare would only expect you to buy this, if you didn't think there was going to be guaranteed insurability down the road. So you're really, by paying this premium or offering this product, betting against President-elect Obama following through on his promise to guarantee insurability.

ROVNER: Laszewski also says the idea of having to buy insurance for insurance points out a major flaw in the nation's health system.

LASZEWSKI: It really takes our system that does not guarantee insurability to the extreme. It says that there is this risk, and not only is there this risk, but this risk is worth about $600 per person per year. It puts a price on the risk, and I think it underscores what an unacceptable risk it is.

ROVNER: Collins of United Healthcare says the timing of the Continuity plan's rollout was a coincidence - that it's been in the works for several years. But he also said there's no telling what kind of changes, if any, will emerge from Washington in the near future. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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