In newly released research, Charles Courtemanche and Daniela Zapata ask perhaps the most important question about the Massachusetts health-care reforms: Did they improve health outcomes in Massachusetts?

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney delivers his address on health-care reform May 12, 2011, at the Cardiovascular Center on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. (J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

Some of those results are a bit odd. Although it’s possible to tell yourself a story about how the Massachusetts health reforms affected the body mass indexes of the newly insured, you have to stretch a bit.

But most of them make perfect sense. The reforms led to more people having insurance, which is to say more people having more opportunities to see a doctor and get early and/or regular treatment for ailments. That led to improvements in health. If that hadn’t led to improvements in health, it would be the worth of going to the doctor and getting timely medical care that would be called into question. And if going to the doctor and getting timely medical care isn’t worth doing, the Massachusetts reforms are pretty far down the list of practices and policies we need to rethink.

The researchers end by asking whether the Massachusetts reforms provide a good guide to what will happen under the Affordable Care Act. “The general strategies for obtaining nearly universal coverage in both the Massachusetts and federal laws involved the same three-pronged approach of non-group insurance market reforms, subsidies, and mandates, suggesting that the health effects should be broadly similar,” they write. “However, the federal legislation included additional costcutting measures such as Medicare cuts that could potentially mitigate the gains in health from the coverage expansions. On the other hand, baseline uninsured rates were unusually low in Massachusetts, so the coverage expansions — and corresponding health improvements — from the Affordable Care Act could potentially be greater.”

I’d add one point to their discussion: The national reforms, unlike the Massachusetts reforms, included major investments in comparative-effectiveness research, electronic health records, accountable care organizations and pay-for-quality pilots. If any or all of those initiatives pay off, they could dramatically improve our understanding of which treatments work and force the health-care system to integrate that new knowledge into everyday treatment decisions very quickly.

If that happens, medical care could become substantially more effective than it is now, which should also improve health outcomes. Quality improvements like that could, for the already insured, be the largest payoff from the Affordable Care Act.

(Thanks to Tyler Cowen for pointing me to the paper.)