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The Takeaway: Expanding Medicaid Programs Saves Lives, Say Harvard Profs

A study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine says that when states expanded their Medicaid programs, fewer people died. Medicaid is the government-run health insurance program for the poor and disabled (not to be confused with Medicare, which is for older adults only).

“I can’t tell you for sure that this is a cause-and-effect relationship,” said study author Benjamin D. Sommers said. “I can tell you we did everything we could to rule out alternative explanations.”

It may seem common sense that giving low-income Americans more access to affordable health care results in them having better health (and subsequently lower death rates). But critics of Medicaid expansion contend the program does not improve the health of beneficiaries and may even be linked to worse health — all while costing state governments bunches of money.

In this study, Harvard researchers analyzed data from three states–New York, Maine and Arizona–that had expanded Medicaid in the last decade to cover low-income adults without children or disabilities. In these states, deaths among adults 20-64 decreased by about 1,500 combined per year, after adjusting for population growth. In four neighboring states that did not expand coverage, death rates increased during the same time period.

The researchers concluded that overall, Medicaid expansions were associated with a 6.1 percent decline in deaths.

This study “should raise concern about the failure to expand Medicaid coverage to people most at risk of not getting the care that they need,” said Karen Davis, president of the nonpartisan research foundation Commonwealth Fund.

Under the Affordable Care Act of 2010, states were originally required to expand their Medicaid programs, to the tune of an additional 17 million recipients nationally. Last month’s Supreme Court ruling on the health care law, however, effectively granted states a pass on this expansion.

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Photo: Joey Ivansco/AP