, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


A new paper on the MIT Econ department web site finds that the “welfare benefit to recipients from Medicaid per dollar of government spending range from $0.2 to $0.4, depending on the framework ….” Those estimates are from “The Value of Medicaid: Interpreting Results from the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment” by Amy Finkelstein, Nathaniel Hendren, and Erzo F.P. Luttmer (Hat Tips: Marginal Revolution, John Crawford). A major share of the increase in the number of insured individuals under Obamacare stems from Medicaid enrollments, so the efficacy of the program is of great interest as the nation considers possible changes to the health care law.

The value of Medicaid to recipients is low in part because the coverage is incremental to the uncompensated medical care they would have received without coverage. So perhaps it’s not too surprising that if “… Medicaid recipients had to pay the government’s average cost of Medicaid, they would rather be uninsured.” That’s why I think some of the commentary on this result is a little unfair, such as the way it’s presented by Megan McArdle. There are clearly other reasons why Medicaid receives a low valuation by recipients, however. For example, the authors find that the program entails substantial costs of moral hazard, which may mean that recipients are in poor health relative to reimbursement levels, take risks that they would avoid in the absence of coverage, or simply over-utilize services for which they would be unwilling to pay, even if the cash were made directly available. While it doesn’t receive much focus from the authors, low reimbursement rates discourage providers from accepting Medicaid patients. That would certainly reduce one’s willingness to pay for the coverage.

Finkelstein, Hendren and Luttmer estimate that 40% to 80% of Medicaid’s welfare value derives from “a transfer component, as opposed to its ability to move resources across states of the world.” The transfers go to providers who, in the absence of Medicaid coverage, would offer “implicit insurance” in the form of uncompensated care. As noted above, that’s a good thing. Providers should be compensated rather than relied upon as a charities, though there are strong indications that compensation is inadequate.

The authors also estimate the value of Medicaid as a “redistribution tool” relative to the earned income tax credit (EITC). At best, they find that recipients would slightly prefer Medicaid cuts to equivalent reductions in the EITC (though the comparison suffers from some conceptual shortcomings). Unsurprisingly, the outcome depends upon how highly the “transfers” to health care providers are valued by enrollees. So the program seems to do poorly in the eyes of recipients, who would likely prefer outright transfers of cash. I would speculate that many recipients would prefer a voucher with which they could purchase coverage levels of their choice, retaining any excess not spent.

The “Value of Medicaid” study suggests that the program is unsuccessful in delivering value to recipients and taxpayers. Obamacare reform should include fundamental changes to the Medicaid program, measures that restore individual choice and the private market for health coverage, and provisions to increase competition in the health care and insurance markets. Eliminating prohibitions on the sale of health insurance across state lines would be a good start. Reforms should also combat excessive regulation of health care providers, such as eliminating the electronic health records mandate and reforming the inflexible system of compensation based on relative value units. Market-oriented reforms and competition can reduce costs and make health care more affordable, aiding in the delivery of greater benefits to all segments of society.