But in Oregon, it was happening anyway. The state, because of overwhelming demand and limited resources, was going to randomly give insurance to some via a lottery and leave the rest uninsured. So a team of health-care policy researchers proposed the first randomized experiment to compare Medicaid — or, to their knowledge, any form of insurance — to being uninsured.
When writing a column, you want surprising results. “Health insurance doesn’t improve health” is a great headline, even if it isn’t great news. But by September 2009, after the first year of coverage and data collection, the Oregon experiment wasn’t returning surprising results. Just encouraging ones.
Compared with the uninsured group, those in the Medicaid sample got 30 percent more hospital care, 35 percent more outpatient care and 15 percent more prescription-drug care. There were similar gains for preventive care; mammograms were up 60 percent and cholesterol monitoring rose 20 percent. The Medicaid recipients also had fewer unpaid bills sent to collection, were 25 percent more likely to report themselves in “good” or “excellent” health, and 10 percent less likely to screen positive for depression. The one surprise was that there was no evidence of “crowd-out:” Medicaid coverage didn’t make someone more or less likely to purchase private insurance.
All this gets to a point that is frequently obscured in a debate that’s often concerned more with cost curves than with treating heart disease. Part of health-care reform is about making care cheaper. But the more important part is about making Americans healthier.
“There was a lot of discussion in the reform debate about whether expanding health insurance would save money,” said Katherine Baicker, an economist at Harvard University who worked on the study and served on President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers. “We don’t talk about other social programs in those terms. Extending food stamps doesn’t save money, for instance.”
In a way, what the Oregon study showed are the tragic effects of the budget cuts that made the experiment possible. In 2002, about 110,000 Oregonians had this insurance. By 2008, only 19,000 did. The study proved how much some 90,000 people had lost — and how much others might lose if the budget debate continues on its current course.