Does Preventive Care Reduce Health Costs?

One anecdote does not constitute evidence; and I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the story below.  But the information in the email, reprinted with the sender’s permission, is nevertheless suggestive:

Dear Professor:

I wasn’t sure to whom I should write, so please pass this along to an economics colleague who specializes in health care costs.

My husband, a man with a BMI of over 40 (a lifelong—since babyhood—“issue”), is currently working as a limousine driver for a commercial carrier regulated by FMCSA [the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration]. In October FMCSA’s Medical Review Board developed new regulations for drivers’ medical evaluations which occur every two years. They are that anyone with a BMI of 40 or more or a BMI of 33–39 with 3 of 11 risk factors (of which 2 are being male and over age 42) be referred for screening for obstructive sleep apnea regardless of whether they show any symptoms of it other than sleepiness while driving. (As my husband pointed out to one of the approved medical examiners at his exam a couple of years back, anyone who answers the question, “Have you ever driven while tired?” with a ‘No’ is lying—there isn’t anyone over the age of 18 who hasn’t driven late at night, in the wee hours of the morning, on a long road trip or to and from work/study after a long day or pulling an all-nighter without feeling tired; since he gets to sleep during the March–October busy season for 1–4 hours at a time, yes, he is tired.)

The salient statistics and facts: According to one organization, 53.2% of FMCSA’s approximately 4 million drivers have a BMI which will fit into the damned-near instant referral for screening. Here in Rhode Island screening costs between $190-$500 we have discovered over the last 2 years. The Medical Review Board’s recommendations note that a negative result is meaningless (essentially), so theoretically, around 2 million people will be referred for a $200 test every 2 years. That’s a “preventive health care” cost of $200 million per year!

Isn’t the point of “preventive health care” to save money? … [T]his “prevention” is penalizing a sizeable (no pun intended) minority … and wasting a lot of health care dollars on testing and treatments which do nothing to make anyone healthier.

For more systematic evidence on whether preventive care is cost-effective, see here.