Health Care Reform Myths

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on March 16, 2010

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Robert Samuelson demolishes them:

How often, for example, have you heard the emergency-room argument? The uninsured, it’s said, use emergency rooms for primary care. That’s expensive and ineffective. Once they’re insured, they’ll have regular doctors. Care will improve; costs will decline. Everyone wins. Great argument. Unfortunately, it’s untrue.

A study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that the insured accounted for 83 percent of emergency-room visits, reflecting their share of the population. After Massachusetts adopted universal insurance, emergency-room use remained higher than the national average, an Urban Institute study found. More than two-fifths of visits represented non-emergencies. Of those, a majority of adult respondents to a survey said it was “more convenient” to go to the emergency room or they couldn’t “get [a doctor's] appointment as soon as needed.” If universal coverage makes appointments harder to get, emergency-room use may increase.

You probably think that insuring the uninsured will dramatically improve the nation’s health. The uninsured don’t get care or don’t get it soon enough. With insurance, they won’t be shortchanged; they’ll be healthier. Simple.

Think again. I’ve written before that expanding health insurance would result, at best, in modest health gains. Studies of insurance’s effects on health are hard to perform. Some find benefits; others don’t. Medicare’s introduction in 1966 produced no reduction in mortality; some studies of extensions of Medicaid for children didn’t find gains. In the Atlantic recently, economics writer Megan McArdle examined the literature and emerged skeptical. Claims that the uninsured suffer tens of thousands of premature deaths are “open to question.” Conceivably, the “lack of health insurance has no more impact on your health than lack of flood insurance,” she writes.

Be sure to read the full thing to see the links Samuelson has included for reference.

And remember: We are preparing to base national health care policy on the myths that Samuelson debunks. Is anyone at the White House listening?

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