Does Health Insurance Improve Health?

An old question has gotten some new evidence. Does health insurance coverage improve health? This is a simple (and important) question that is complicated to answer definitively due to methodological reasons, but the evidence base has grown by two important papers in peer review journals in the past few weeks:

  • Ben Sommers has a recently accepted paper in the American Journal of Health Economics that is available online as an eprint. He finds that Medicaid expansions in the early 2000s in 3 states saved lives, and he documents the costs of doing so. The point of the paper is better methods of determining if Medicaid expansions did in fact save lives and looking at the cost of coverage. His top level findings:
    • 1 life saved for every 239-316 persons newly covered by Medicaid (the range represents the uncertainty in the estimate–could be as high as 316 lives saved, or as low as 239, for each newly covered person).
    • The cost per life saved was $327,000-$867,000
    • He discusses the other things that could be done with this amount of money and notes these amounts are less than often paid per life saved for many interventions
  • Ben Sommers, Atul Gawande and Kate Baicker have a paper in the most recent NEJM that looks more comprehensively (not only mortality as an outcome, and at different types of insurance, public and private) and reviews the recent peer reviewed work on the broad topic of does health insurance improve health. This is a nuanced paper that focuses on the current health reform discussions that our nation is having and goes directly to how important losses in recent coverage expansions could be to public health. On the most basic question at hand they conclude

    There remain many unanswered questions
    about U.S. health insurance policy, including
    how to best structure coverage to maximize
    health and value and how much public spending
    we want to devote to subsidizing coverage for
    people who cannot afford it. But whether enrollees
    benefit from that coverage is not one of the
    unanswered questions. Insurance coverage increases
    access to care and improves a wide range
    of health outcomes. Arguing that health insurance
    coverage doesn’t improve health is simply
    inconsistent with the evidence.

The evidence base changes weekly. These two important papers need to make their way into the ongoing policy debates.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy at Duke University (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute). I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy, and currently serve as Chair of Duke's University Priorities Committee (UPC). My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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