Oregon Health Insurance Experiment: No Vindication of ObamaCare

The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment is the first experiment since the dawn of time that randomly assigns some households to receive health insurance (Medicaid) for purposes of comparing their medical consumption, health outcomes, and financial security to similar households that do not receive Medicaid coverage.  Some of the nation’s top health economists have released the first batch of results from the OHIE.

At National Review (Online), I summarize the OHIE’s first-year results and offer the following analysis:

Supporters of President Obama’s health-care law may tout these benefits, but the OHIE does not provide the vindication they seek. First, despite being eligible for Medicaid, 13 percent of the control group had private health insurance — suggesting that on some dimension, Medicaid’s eligibility rules are already too broad.

Second, the OHIE extended coverage to the most vulnerable population of uninsured Americans, yet the improvements in health and financial security are so far apparently modest. At higher income levels, where individuals have greater baseline access to health insurance and medical care, the benefits of expanding coverage are likely to be smaller and the costs (to the extent that crowd-out is higher at higher income levels) will be greater.

Third, supporters must show not only that expanding coverage improves health but also that it does so at a lower cost to taxpayers than alternative policies. Health economists generally agree that discrete programs promoting highly effective treatments (for hypertension, diabetes, etc.) could produce health gains as large as expanding health insurance would, but at far less expense. Reducing taxes could plausibly reduce financial strain to a similar degree by expanding job creation.

Finally, the OHIE illuminates an unflattering feature of the push for Obamacare. For a century, the Left has advocated universal health insurance despite not knowing what benefits it might bring. In 2010, Congress and President Obama vastly expanded Medicaid without waiting for the results of the one study that might tell them what taxpayers would get in return for their half a trillion dollars. As the law’s supporters seek to cajole doctors into practicing evidence-based medicine, it is no small irony that they themselves dove head-first into evidence-free policymaking.

To the Church of Universal Coverage, the benefits of universal coverage, whatever those might be, are an article of faith.