Fewer people died after Massachusetts introduced mandatory health coverage in 2006, a new Harvard study finds, offering “encouraging evidence” that the country’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) – modeled on the Massachusetts plan – could also save lives, researchers said.
The study, published this week in Annals of Internal Medicine, found that Massachusetts’ health-coverage law saved about 320 lives a year during each of its first four years.
“Our findings add to a growing body of evidence showing that health insurance makes a positive difference in people’s lives,” lead author Benjamin Sommers, M.D., assistant professor of health policy and economics at Harvard’s School of Public Health, said in a statement.
Sommers and his team looked at death rates among 4 million adults ages 20 to 64 in Massachusetts in the four years before and after reform, finding a drop of about 3 percent. In contrast, the death rate in a control group in states without universal coverage remained largely unchanged.
The biggest reduction was “in deaths from the kinds of illnesses where we expect health care to have the biggest impact, including infections, cancer and cardiovascular disease,” Sommers said.
Whether national death rates will similarly fall under the ACA is still an open question, but Sommers calls the Massachusetts experience “encouraging news” for the law’s potential impact on public health.
But some remain skeptical, pointing to mixed results from other studies that tried to assess the effect of health insurance on mortality, according to the New York Times.
For example, a 2007 study of Medicare’s effect on death rates in the 10 years after it was introduced in 1966 found no significant change, possibly because before 1966 people with severe diseases but no health insurance were often treated in hospitals as charity cases. On the other hand, a 2001 analysis of health care use by seniors showed that the life expectancy of Americans at age 65 increased from 14.3 years in 1960 to 17.8 years in 1998 – although that could have been due to both health insurance and improved medical treatment.
Still, if the Massachusetts plan is any indication, a national 3 percent drop would mean about 17,000 fewer deaths a year, according to the Times. To date, the government reports that more than 8 million people have signed up for ACA coverage.
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