Tag: Katherine Baicker

A Question for Medicaid Deniers

A lot of people are writing about the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment results, released yesterday, which found zero evidence that expanding Medicaid to the most vulnerable people targeted by ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion improves their physical health. Here’s my take on the study and its implications. Megan McArdle, Shikha Dalmia, Avik Roy, and Peter Suderman are making solid contributions to the debate. Zeke Emanuel gets points for making an admission against interest (“It’s disappointing”). Points also to Jennifer Rubin for her take on what the OHIE says about ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion: “If there had been a giant trial of a heart medication with lousy results we wouldn’t proceed in mass-marketing the drug; we might even take it off the shelves.” Not a bad idea. Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas call for more such experiments. Yes! Let’s have more randomized, controlled trials of the effects of Medicaid, on pre-ObamaCare populations, in big states like California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Illinois, where we can harnass even more statistical power. The only unethical thing would be to keep spending trillions on this program without knowing whether it’s even effective (much less cost-effective).

Others are making less-solid contributions. Here’s a question for them.

Since the OHIE shows that Medicaid makes no difference in the diagnosis or use of medication to treat high blood pressure or high cholesterol, and has no effect on blood-sugar levels despite increasing diabetes diagnoses and medication use, would you support eliminating Medicaid coverage for these screenings and medications?

If not, why not?

Oregon Study Throws a Stop Sign in Front of ObamaCare’s Medicaid Expansion

Today, the nation’s top health economists released a study that throws a huge “STOP” sign in front of ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion.

The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, or OHIE, may be the most important study ever conducted on health insurance. Oregon officials randomly assigned thousands of low-income Medicaid applicants – basically, the most vulnerable portion of the group that would receive coverage under ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion – either to receive Medicaid coverage, or nothing. Health economists then compared the people who got Medicaid to the people who didn’t. The OHIE is the only randomized, controlled study ever conducted on the effects of having health insurance versus no health insurance. Randomized, controlled studies are the gold standard of such research.

Consistent with lackluster results from the first year, the OHIE’s second-year results found no evidence that Medicaid improves the physical health of enrollees. There were some modest improvements in depression and financial strain–but it is likely those gains could be achieved at a much lower cost than through an extremely expensive program like Medicaid. Here are the study’s results and conclusions:

We found no significant effect of Medicaid coverage on the prevalence or diagnosis of hypertension or high cholesterol levels or on the use of medication for these conditions. Medicaid coverage significantly increased the probability of a diagnosis of diabetes and the use of diabetes medication, but we observed no significant effect on average glycated hemoglobin levels or on the percentage of participants with levels of 6.5% or higher. Medicaid coverage decreased the probability of a positive screening for depression [by 30 percent], increased the use of many preventive services, and nearly eliminated catastrophic out-of-pocket medical expenditures…

This randomized, controlled study showed that Medicaid coverage generated no significant improvements in measured physical health outcomes in the first 2 years, but it did increase use of health care services, raise rates of diabetes detection and management, lower rates of depression, and reduce financial strain.

As one of the study’s authors explained to me, it did not find any effect on mortality because the sample size is too small. Mortality rates among the targeted population – able-bodied adults 19-64 below 100 percent of poverty who aren’t already eligible for government health insurance programs – are already very low. So even if expanding Medicaid reduces mortality among this group, and there is ample room for doubt, the effect would be so small that this study would be unable to detect it. That too is reason not to implement the Medicaid expansion. This is not a population that is going to start dying in droves if states decline to participate.

There is no way to spin these results as anything but a rebuke to those who are pushing states to expand Medicaid. The Obama administration has been trying to convince states to throw more than a trillion additional taxpayer dollars at Medicaid by participating in the expansion, when the best-designed research available cannot find any evidence that it improves the physical health of enrollees. The OHIE even studied the most vulnerable part of the Medicaid-expansion population – those below 100 percent of the federal poverty level – yet still found no improvements in physical health.

If Medicaid partisans are still determined to do something, the only responsible route is to launch similar experiments in other states, with an even larger sample size, to determine if there is anything the OHIE might have missed. Or they could design smaller, lower-cost, more targeted efforts to reduce depression and financial strain among the poor. (I propose deregulating health care.) This study shows there is absolutely no warrant to expand Medicaid at all.

ObamaCare Supporters Are Over-Interpreting Oregon Medicaid Study

Columbia Business School economist Ray Fisman has a piece at Slate.com discussing the first-year results of the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment.  In brief, when Oregon transferred an average of $3,000 from taxpayers to poor people in the form of Medicaid coverage, it did those poor people some good.

Fisman’s interpretation of the results is different from mine in mainly two respects.  First, I describe the one-year benefits of Medicaid coverage as modest; he says they’re “enormous.”

A more fundamental difference concerns whether expanding Medicaid was a cost-effective use of the taxpayers’ money.  Fisman writes:

Given the added expense, did the Medicaid expansion prove to be cost-effective? That is, did the treatment group actually have better health outcomes?

That’s not what cost-effectiveness means.  For Medicaid to be cost-effective, it must (A) produce benefits and (B) do so at the same or a lower cost than the alternatives.

The OHIE establishes only that there are some (modest) benefits to expanding Medicaid (to poor people) (after one year).  It tells us next to nothing about the costs of producing those benefits, which include not just the transfers from taxpayers but also any behavioral changes on the part of Medicaid enrollees, such as reductions in work effort or asset accumulation induced by this means-tested program.  Nor does it tell us anything about the costs and benefits of alternative policies.

Just as some opponents of ObamaCare over-interpreted previous Medicaid studies, Fisman and other ObamaCare supporters are over-interpreting the OHIE.

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.