Health Insurance and Good Health Are Not the Same Thing

If insurance isn’t the cure, why are we prescribing it with such zeal?

Whether you’re into this sort of thing or not, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about healthcare policy these days. Public debate has roiled as Republican lawmakers attempt to make good on their seven-year promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As the debate rages on, one metric in particular appears to hold an outsized importance for the American people: the number of Americans covered by health insurance.

The ultimate point of health insurance is that people will use insurance as a means to improve their health, not just carry a plastic card in their wallets.

Analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, which showed that 14 million more Americans could lose coverage by 2018 under the Republican replacement, caused an intense public outcry and was frequently cited as a rationale for not abandoning the ACA. There is immense political pressure not to take actions that will lead to a large loss of coverage.

But here’s the thing: the relevant metric by which to judge Obamacare isn’t insurance coverage numbers. To do so is to move the goalposts and place undue importance on a number that might not be as significant as we imagine.

The ultimate point of health insurance, and the implied rationale for manipulating insurance markets to cover sicker people, is that people will use insurance as a means by which to improve their health, not just carry a plastic card in their wallets.

Health Insurance ≠ Health

The impulse to use insurance coverage as a proxy for health is misguided but understandable. For one thing, it’s a simple, singular number that has dropped precipitously since the implementation of the ACA. That makes it a great marketing piece for supporters. For another, health insurance is the mechanism by which most of us pay for most of our healthcare.

And yet in 2015, the uninsured rate fell to 10.5% (down from 16.4% in 2005) while age-adjusted mortality increased for the first time in a decade. It turns out a nominal increase in the amount of insured Americans doesn’t necessarily translate into improved health outcomes for those individuals.

Despite gains in coverage, we haven’t much improved the physical health of the average American.

newly released paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) finds that while the ACA has improved access to healthcare, “no statistically significant effects on risky behaviors or self-assessed health” can be detected among the population (beyond a slight uptick in self-reported health in patients over 65).

These results are consistent with other studies, like the Oregon Medicaid Experiment, which found no improvement in patients’ blood pressure, cholesterol, or cardiovascular risk after enrolling them in Medicaid, even though they were far more likely to see a doctor. There were, however, some notable-but-mild psychic benefits, such as a reduction in depression and stress in enrollees.

In short, despite gains in coverage, we haven’t much improved the physical health of the average American, which is ostensibly the objective of the ACA.

Why Not?

To be fair, the ACA is relatively young; most of its provisions didn’t go into effect until 2014. It may well be that more time needs to pass before we start to see a positive effect on people’s health. But there are a few reasons to think those health benefits may never materialize – at least, not to a great extent.

Health insurance won’t make you exercise, or change your diet, or stop you from smoking.

A lot of what plagues modern Americans (especially the poorest Americans) has more to do with behavior and environment than access to a doctor.

Health insurance can be a lifesaver if you need help paying for antiretroviral medication, but it won’t stop you from living in a neighborhood with a high rate of violent crime. It won’t make you exercise, or change your diet, or stop you from smoking. It won’t force you to take your medicine or stop you from abusing opioids, and it certainly won’t change how you commute to work (that’s a reference to the  rapid increase in traffic deaths in 2015).

Of course, all things being equal, more insurance coverage is better. But nothing comes without cost, and as a society we want to be sure that benefits justify costs. So far, that’s not clear. This poses an existential question about our current pursuit of universal coverage, and, by extension, the relevance of coverage as a metric for the success of healthcare policy: If insurance isn’t the cure, why are we prescribing it with such zeal?

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