Do Coverage Expansions Save Lives? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

A few weeks after two studies called into question whether one particular element of Obamacare—its hospital readmissions program—may have increased mortality rates nationwide, another study released by several economists expressed doubt about whether the law’s more than $1 trillion in spending on coverage expansions actually reduced mortality. Moreover, the latest study also raises fundamental questions about whether any coverage expansion will generate measurable reductions in mortality rates.

Coming in a week when Democrats prepare to release the latest version of their single-payer legislation, which estimates suggest could cost at least $30 trillion, the study raises an obvious question: What exactly will Americans receive for all the trillions of dollars in new government spending the left proposes? The study basically shrugs.

Effects of Medicaid Expansion

The analysis showed the problems inherent with attributing changes in mortality rates to expansions in insurance coverage. The study noted that “if one simply compares the…difference in mortality rates for non-expansion versus full-expansion states…it would appear that Medicaid expansion has a large, immediate effect in reducing mortality.” But in reality, mortality rates among those two groups of states had begun to move in opposite directions before the main provisions of Obamacare took effect in 2014. “There is little additional divergence during 2014-2016.”

The researchers’ work highlights the inherent flaws in this field of study. Because mortality is by definition a rare event (particularly for younger populations), and because so many different factors affect mortality, it becomes exceedingly difficult to attribute any change in mortality rates to changes in insurance coverage.

For instance, the opioid crisis, which has led to a decrease in life expectancy, hit just before Obamacare’s coverage expansions took effect, and in many cases affected the same populations. This and other similar factors introduce statistical “noise” that make it difficult to conclude with any certainty that expanded coverage (as opposed to some other factor) impacted mortality rates.

Simulations Expose Flaws

In most cases, the “power analysis” simulations concluded that, to find a statistically significant reduction in mortality rates at least 80 percent of the time, the coverage expansions would have to reduce mortality by more than 100 percent—a statistically impossible result. Because Obamacare reduced the uninsured rate by only a few percentage points, and because most available data sets lack corresponding income and insurance information—to prove, for instance, that X person had Y type of insurance and Z income over a certain number of years—the researchers could not make conclusive assertions about coverage expansions’ effects on mortality.

As it is, the uninsured already receive significant amounts of health care. One 2017 study found they consume nearly 80 percent of the care used by Americans with health insurance. Therefore, to test the effects of coverage expansions on mortality, researchers either need an incredibly large increase in the number of insured individuals—tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of Americans—or much more precise data about the income and coverage sources of those who gain insurance.

Liberals’ Alarmist Rhetoric

The authors caution that “our analysis should not be interpreted as evidence that health insurance does not affect mortality or health, either overall or for particular diseases or subgroups.” (Emphasis original.) However, the analysis does demonstrate that health insurance likely has a small and difficult to quantify effect on mortality rates. The study therefore proves how liberal claims two years ago that Republican “repeal-and-replace” legislation would kill tens of thousands of individuals annually had little bearing in reality.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.