Elite Athletes Struggle for Insurance, Too

Competing in the Olympics comes with many obvious perks, like the honor of representing one’s country on the international stage and lucrative endorsements. But when elite athletes enter the health-insurance market, they face the same byzantine system the rest of us do. Myriad plans exist, each with different requirements and benefits. How much you pay hinges on your sport, your level of competition, and your geographic location.

Many American team members receive insurance through the U.S. Olympic Committee, which offers a plan called Elite Athlete Health Insurance. The policy operates like employer-based insurance, in which a group of individuals purchase together to drive down prices. In this case, though, the employees are Olympic athletes. The USOC plan covers the basics—things like doctors' visits and prescriptions—with athletes chipping in small copays. (The USOC declined to comment for this story, but numerous sports organizations, whose members have USOC insurance, confirmed these details.)

The Olympic Committee doles out a limited number of policies to each sport. This year U.S. Figure Skating reports 18 spots, USA Luge has 12, and the U.S. Skiing and Snowboard Association has about 70. Each of these organizations—known in Olympic terms as the "national governing bodies"—is left to distribute their allotment of policies to their athletes; this means that not every athlete in a particular sport can get coverage—just the top ones.

What the USOC plan does not pay for—and what athletes definitely want covered—are sports-related injuries: costs incurred from accidents that happen during competition or practice. Each professional athletic association, from figure skating to luge, offers a catastrophic plan, usually for Olympic athletes as well as lower-level competitors. Coverage varies; among the four sports associations NEWSWEEK talked to—the U.S. Skiing and Snowboard Association (USSA), U.S. Figure Skating, USA Luge, and the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation—deductibles range from nonexistent up through $2,500. The USSA's Elite Athlete Insurance, for example, has a $500 deductible and maximum $1,250 copay per accident, according to a description of its plan listed on its site. But if you're part of USA Luge, your deductible drops to $250. And at the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, deductibles change whether you are competing internationally (just $25) or domestically ($250 to $2,500, on a sliding scale, with the least accomplished bobsledders and skeleton racers paying the highest premiums).

"The accident insurance is secondary," explains Amy Chapin, director of administration at USA Luge. So if a luge athlete suffers a sports-related injury, "it needs to go through their Elite Athlete Insurance, be denied, and then it comes to us."

The cost of insuring Olympic athletes is difficult to pin down, largely because of privacy issues. At the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, about 29 percent of the athletes were seen by doctors at medical facilities, compared with 12 percent at Turin in 2006. At the Turin Games, most of the injuries were minor, with only 23 requiring hospital admission. Surprisingly, the vast majority of visitors to Olympic medical facilities are usually spectators. At the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, spectators made up more than three quarters of the patients.

With numerous policies at play, the process can get complicated. The USSA has 30,000 members, all covered on a secondary plan, and 76 of whom are competing at the Olympics. The USSA has one staff member whose job is largely dedicated to handling insurance claims. "With major injuries it can be a difficult process," says Luke Bodensteiner, the USSA's vice president of athletics. "Outside of the United States it's a different ball game; the laws are different about whether you have to pay upfront or not. So that's a challenge we find ourselves working out every now and then."

The losers in the Olympic insurance market are usually the almost-Olympic athletes, the handful of elite competitors for whom their sport is a full-time job yet do not qualify for the Games. They often do not receive USOC coverage and likely do not have access to an employer-based plan. From the way athletic officials describe it, they're left in a health-insurance situation quite similar to that of unemployed Americans. "The athletes that have it hardest are those who aren't on the Olympic team, those who don't qualify," says Darrin Steele, CEO of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. "We don't have a supplemental policy for them. They're on their own."

At USA Luge, the team received 12 USOC health-care policies for a national squad of 16 (including alternates). The entire Olympic luge team, which numbered only 10, got coverage (except for one, who is covered by his parents). The elite athletes who didn't make the cut, however, were mostly left to fend for themselves. "We would love more spots because our national team is bigger than [12 people]," says Chapin. "What happens if an athlete turns 19, and is off their parents' plan, or stops being a full-time student to compete? Then they can't access affordable insurance through anybody. We definitely are always in a bad situation."

USA Luge and other sports organizations NEWSWEEK spoke with require their nationally competitive athletes to carry a primary insurance policy, if not through the USOC, then through a parent, spouse, or the individual insurance market. In that sense, the Olympics might be a bit more progressive than the rest of us: while politicians struggle to pass health-care reform in Washington, athletes already have their own individual mandate.