New Study Confirms That Health Reform Can Save Lives

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

The mortality rate in Massachusetts dropped significantly after the state enacted health care reform in 2006, according to a new study published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Since Massachusetts’ health law relies on many of the same policies as the Affordable Care Act, the findings suggest that Obamacare could help save thousands of lives once it’s fully implemented.

Researchers examined mortality data for counties in Massachusetts as well as similar areas in other states that didn’t expand health coverage. They found that the number of deaths per 100,000 people fell by about three percent in Massachusetts in the four years after the health reform law took effect. Meanwhile, they didn’t observe the same decline in other states:

mass health care

CREDIT: Los Angeles Times

That suggests that for every 830 people who gained insurance, one death was prevented. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found that that health reform had a particularly significant impact in the areas of Massachusetts with previously high rates of poverty and uninsurance; the mortality rate decline was steepest there.

“These are really important findings,” said Sara Collins, the vice president for the Commonwealth Fund, a nonpartisan health policy research foundation, told the Los Angeles Times. “We already know people with health insurance have a very different quality of life…. This study provides convincing evidence that increasing the number of people with insurance leads to lower rates of mortality.”

Health policy experts have long debated the effect of insurance on mortality rates, and this new study won’t put a definitive end to that ongoing discussion. The researchers also caution that Massachusetts is just one state, and their findings could be due to specific factors there that won’t lead to quite the same results nationally. Nonetheless, experts in the field are largely impressed with the study’s methodology and optimistic about its potential implications for national health reform.

By the New York Times’ calculations, if Obamacare successfully spurred a three percent drop in mortality rates, that would equal about 17,000 fewer deaths a year. Other estimates put the potential lives saved even higher, around 24,000.

Although life expectancy for Americans as a whole has been on the rise, widening income inequality and deepening health disparities have ensured that poor people’s lives are actually getting shorter. This study suggests that Obamacare has the potential to help reverse that trend — but that’s only possible in the states that agree to fully implement the law. More than 20 GOP-led states continue to resist accepting the health law’s optional Medicaid expansion, a move that’s denying affordable insurance from millions of the poorest Americans. Another recent study that focused on health reform’s effect on mortality estimated that as many as 17,000 people will die directly as a result of their state’s refusal to expand Medicaid.