Turning Up the Heat on Medicaid Expansion

There was a study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine that is getting a lot play in the popular media – which as I have written before is the sharpest of double-edged swords where issues of truth and reality are concerned. Nonetheless, the timing of the research reported is well done in light of a number of states still wrestling with whether or not to accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion.

The Oregon Experiment — Effects of Medicaid on Clinical Outcomes

Back in 2008 approximately 90,000 individuals in Oregon signed up for a lottery that would subsequently provide Medicaid coverage to approximately 30,000. In doing so, Oregon created two randomly selected groups that could be analyzed to determine the comparative effects of having access to health insurance via the state Medicaid program there.

Two years later the relative impact of being insured through Medicaid produced what on the surface appears to many as conflicting results. Use of medical services (i.e., physician services, medications and hospital services) by those covered by Medicaid increased 35%, while access to preventative services and screenings increased by 50% or more. The rate of depression incidence in the Medicaid covered population was reduced by 30% compared to the control group. In addition, the financial impact on families was dramatic – e.g., it was reported the probability of having to endure financial hardship to pay medical bills was reduced by more than 50%.

On the other hand, the health impact in terms of outcomes for those individuals covered by Medicaid was less impressive. In fact, while those receiving the Medicaid benefit were more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes as compared to the control group, their blood sugar levels were not markedly impacted. And the same held true for blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

So in a nutshell, what the research shows is that having health insurance can drive higher access and utilization of available medical services. If you provide it, they will use it – a good thing. But it very well may not have a significant impact on health outcomes – particularly outcomes that are largely influenced by chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes and hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol). Providing it won’t change lifestyle behaviors – a bad thing.

As this research demonstrates, addressing the behavioral elements that impact health outcomes is far more difficult and far more complex than just an access issue. But I think it is certainly shortsighted and faulty logic to fail Medicaid based on health outcome data alone. Improving access and utilization of medical services by the un- and underinsured population is a progressive advancement that has merits independent of outcomes, which is further reinforced when considering the relatively short time period covered by this research.

But the more salient if not subtle point of these results is that chronic disease management requires a coordinated effort of social, educational and medical influences that clearly place expectations of behavior modification beyond the sole responsibility of healthcare practitioners. That reality neither bolsters nor detracts from the arguments being made in support of state Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act despite what you may read or hear otherwise.


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