Health insurance is not health care (and just because health insurance premiums rise does not necessarily mean health care is more expensive), but health insurance is a crucial mechanism that we use to finance and access health care.
And, in some cases, not having health insurance can be the difference between life and death. Just take a look at the results of two studies published in the August issue of the journal Cancer comparing survival rates for men with two forms of cancer based on insurance status.
From the first study, regarding glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive type of brain cancer:
Among the 13,665 adult patients in the study cohort, 558 (4.1%) were uninsured, 1516 (11.1%) had Medicaid coverage, and 11,591 (84.8%) had non-Medicaid insurance. Compared with patients who were uninsured, insured patients were more likely to be older, female, white, married, and with a smaller tumor size at diagnosis. Accelerated failure time analysis demonstrated that older age (hazard ratio [HR], 1.04; P<.001), male sex (HR, 1.08; P<.001), large tumor size at the time of diagnosis (HR, 1.26; P<.001), uninsured status (HR, 1.14; P =.018), and Medicaid insurance (HR, 1.10; P =.006) were independent risk factors for shorter survival among patients with GBM, whereas radiotherapy (HR, 0.40; P<.001) and married status (HR, 0.86; P<.001) indicated a better outcome. The authors discovered an overall yearly progressive improvement in survival in patients with non-Medicaid insurance who were diagnosed from 2007 through 2011 (P =.015), but not in uninsured or Medicaid-insured patients.
Rong, X., Yang, W., Garzon-Muvdi, T., Caplan, J. M., Hui, X., Lim, M. and Huang, J. (2016), Influence of insurance status on survival of adults with glioblastoma multiforme: A population-based study. Cancer. doi:10.1002/cncr.30160
Translation: patients with private insurance lived the longest with this form of brain cancer. In terms of surviving glioblastoma multiforme, Medicaid did not seem to make a difference compared to being uninsured.
And the second study, regarding germ cell testicular cancer:
Uninsured patients had an increased risk of metastatic disease at diagnosis (relative risk [RR], 1.26; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.15-1.38) in comparison with insured patients, as did Medicaid patients (RR, 1.62; 95% CI, 1.51-1.74). Among men with metastatic disease, uninsured and Medicaid patients were more likely to be diagnosed with intermediate/poor-risk disease (RR for uninsured patients, 1.22; 95% CI, 1.04-1.44; RR for Medicaid patients, 1.39; 95% CI, 1.23-1.57) and were less likely to undergo lymph node dissection (RR for uninsured patients, 0.74; 95% CI, 0.57-0.94; RR for Medicaid patients, 0.76; 95% CI, 0.63-0.92) in comparison with insured patients. Men without insurance were more likely to die of their disease (hazard ratio [HR], 1.88; 95% CI, 1.29-2.75) in comparison with insured men, as were those with Medicaid (HR, 1.58; 95% CI, 1.16-2.15).
Markt, S. C., Lago-Hernandez, C. A., Miller, R. E., Mahal, B. A., Bernard, B., Albiges, L., Frazier, L. A., Beard, C. J., Wright, A. A. and Sweeney, C. J. (2016), Insurance status and disparities in disease presentation, treatment, and outcomes for men with germ cell tumors. Cancer. doi:10.1002/cncr.30159
Translation: men who had private insurance were 88 percent more likely to survive germ cell testicular cancer than those who were uninsured, and the men who had Medicaid were 58 percent more likely to survive than those who were uninsured.
In both studies, patients with private insurance tended to be diagnosed earlier on the disease progression than uninsured and Medicaid patients, and this was shown to be important to a patient’s survival.
Arguments for the left and right
There is fodder here for both sides of the political aisle. On the one hand, liberals can point to the 58 percent increase in survival rates among Medicaid patients compared to those who were uninsured. And they can also point to the researchers’ acknowledgement that many of the Medicaid patients were likely to have been uninsured until just after being diagnosed with cancer. Clearly having Medicaid was better for these patients than having no insurance at all.
And yet, on the other side of the aisle, conservatives can point to the results of the first study that, despite all the tax dollars spent on Medicaid, it did not seem to make a difference in survival rates compared to having no insurance at all. Even with the second study, the right can point to the far superior outcomes of patients with private insurance compared to those with Medicaid, even while acknowledging that Medicaid was better for those patients than being uninsured.
So, what’s an objective observer concerned about health policy supposed to make of these results? I have a few suggestions.
- Private insurance probably improves access to care because reimbursement rates for physicians and hospitals are much higher than Medicaid. Many physicians will not accept Medicaid patients due to the very low reimbursement rates. Medicaid can also have issues with the timeliness of reimbursement, depending how much funding is left in a given state’s Medicaid budget. Even the physicians who do accept Medicaid might be less inclined to proceed with aggressive cancer treatments for their Medicaid patients than they would be for their patients with private insurance. The germ cell study found that Medicaid and uninsured patients did have a different treatment path from patients with private insurance, but this might be because they were also diagnosed later.
- Medicaid isn’t as good as private insurance, but it’s better than nothing. Particularly for the germ cell cancers, Medicaid patients had much better outcomes than uninsured patients even though they did not fare as well as the patients with private insurance. Medicaid certainly has its administrative and funding/reimbursement challenges as a government bureaucracy reliant in part on state government sources, but does anyone seriously believe this is causing the cancer patients in their population to die in such large numbers? I’m all for innovations to make Medicaid as efficient as possible so that it can serve these populations as effectively and cost effectively as possible, but the idea that is it a hindrance to care for people who can’t afford private insurance is simply not borne out by the evidence. One learning point from these studies for Medicaid plans is to do more to encourage their populations to get cancer screenings so that these cancers can be caught earlier, but that doesn’t fully explain the insurance disparities.
- These comparisons don’t represent realistic policy choices. I don’t know of anyone on either side of the aisle who has proposed putting the Medicaid population on private health insurance plans like the ones employers offer to their employees. Republicans would balk at the high cost to taxpayers, and Democrats would balk at the high levels of cost sharing for poor people who can’t afford it as well as the involvement of private insurance companies in general. Sure, some private health insurers have contracts with state governments to administer managed Medicaid plans, but those plans still don’t reimburse physicians and hospitals the way private plans do. They’re not equivalent. Even the private health insurance plans that are available on the exchanges for people a little higher up the economic ladder than Medicaid patients tend to have lower physician and hospital reimbursement rates than most employer-sponsored or individual plans outside of the exchanges. Considering how many Medicaid patients are covered by managed Medicaid plans operated by private insurance companies, one would think these private insurers would be able to close the gap between their regular insured and their Medicaid patients. Given the very real policy implications being debated in state legislatures today, it would be interesting to learn if there are real disparities between managed Medicaid and traditional Medicaid patients, but so far that research is lacking.
- Medicaid is not Medicare, and it’s especially not single payer. Some on the left, like Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, have been calling for a single-payer system that would essentially be “Medicare for all.” Medicare’s reimbursement rates are lower than private insurance but higher than Medicaid, and Medicare have the same payment timeliness issues that Medicaid does because it’s funded entirely by the federal government without involvement of state governments. Unlike Medicaid, physician participation in Medicare is already nearly universal (although I don’t know of too many pediatricians who take Medicare patients today because most Medicare beneficiaries are over 65). Eliminating private health insurance and moving to a “Medicare for all” system regardless of age would bring those pediatricians and the few outliers from other specialties into the Medicare fold because there would literally be no other source of income for them if they intended to continue practicing medicine at all.
- Achieving equally bad outcomes would be a pyrrhic victory. I’ve seen bumper stickers from conservatives that read, “Liberals want misery spread equally.” It’s a concern worth addressing. If we address these disparities by merely reducing the survival rates of people who currently have private insurance, things will be equal, but no one will be better off. For germ cell testicular cancer, the research tells us that taxpayer dollars spent on Medicaid are quite literally saving lives for people who would otherwise be uninsured. But it’s very important that we understand the complex reasons why the Medicaid population is experiencing these disparities compared to the population with private insurance and address them. My health economics professor from graduate school would say that we need to build a better model.