Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 12th February 2018

Every Monday our authors provide a round-up of some of the most recently published peer reviewed articles from the field. We don’t cover everything, or even what’s most important – just a few papers that have interested the author. Visit our Resources page for links to more journals or follow the HealthEconBot. If you’d like to write one of our weekly journal round-ups, get in touch.

Tuskegee and the health of black men. The Quarterly Journal of Economics [RePEc] Published February 2018

In 1932, a study often considered the most infamous and potentially most unethical in U.S. medical history began. Researchers in Alabama enrolled impoverished black men in a research program designed to examine the effects of syphilis under the guise of receiving government-funded health care. The study was known as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. For 40 years the research subjects were not informed they had syphilis nor were they treated, even after penicillin was shown to be effective. The study was terminated in 1972 after its details were leaked to the press; numerous men died, 40 wives contracted syphilis, and a number of children were born with congenital syphilis. It is no surprise then that there is distrust among African Americans in the medical system. The aim of this article is to examine whether the distrust engendered by the Tuskegee study could have contributed to the significant differences in health outcomes between black males and other groups. To derive a causal estimate the study makes use of a number of differences: black vs non-black, for obvious reasons; male vs female, since the study targeted males, and also since women were more likely to have had contact with and hence higher trust in the medical system; before vs after; and geographic differences, since proximity to the location of the study may be informative about trust in the local health care facilities. A wide variety of further checks reinforce the conclusions that the study led to a reduction in health care utilisation among black men of around 20%. The effect is particularly pronounced in those with low education and income. Beyond elucidating the indirect harms caused by this most heinous of studies, it illustrates the importance of trust in mediating the effectiveness of public institutions. Poor reputations caused by negligence and malpractice can spread far and wide – the mid-Staffordshire hospital scandal may be just such an example.

The economic consequences of hospital admissions. American Economic Review [RePEcPublished February 2018

That this paper’s title recalls that of Keynes’s book The Economic Consequences of the Peace is to my mind no mistake. Keynes argued that a generous and equitable post-war settlement was required to ensure peace and economic well-being in Europe. The slow ‘economic privation’ driven by the punitive measures and imposed austerity of the Treaty of Versailles would lead to crisis. Keynes was evidently highly critical of the conference that led to the Treaty and resigned in protest before its end. But what does this have to do with hospital admissions? Using an ‘event study’ approach – in essence regressing the outcome of interest on covariates including indicators of time relative to an event – the paper examines the impact hospital admissions have on a range of economic outcomes. The authors find that for insured non-elderly adults “hospital admissions increase out-of-pocket medical spending, unpaid medical bills, and bankruptcy, and reduce earnings, income, access to credit, and consumer borrowing.” Similarly, they estimate that hospital admissions among this same group are responsible for around 4% of bankruptcies annually. These losses are often not insured, but they note that in a number of European countries the social welfare system does provide assistance for lost wages in the event of hospital admission. Certainly, this could be construed as economic privation brought about by a lack of generosity of the state. Nevertheless, it also reinforces the fact that negative health shocks can have adverse consequences through a person’s life beyond those directly caused by the need for medical care.

Is health care infected by Baumol’s cost disease? Test of a new model. Health Economics [PubMed] [RePEcPublished 9th February 2018

A few years ago we discussed Baumol’s theory of the ‘cost disease’ and an empirical study trying to identify it. In brief, the theory supposes that spending on health care (and other labour-intensive or creative industries) as a proportion of GDP increases, at least in part, because these sectors experience the least productivity growth. Productivity increases the fastest in sectors like manufacturing and remuneration increases as a result. However, this would lead to wages in the most productive sectors outstripping those in the ‘stagnant’ sectors. For example, salaries for doctors would end up being less than those for low-skilled factory work. Wages, therefore, increase in the stagnant sectors despite a lack of productivity growth. The consequence of all this is that as GDP grows, the proportion spent on stagnant sectors increases, but importantly the absolute amount spent on the productive sectors does not decrease. The share of the pie gets bigger but the pie is growing at least as fast, as it were. To test this, this article starts with a theoretic two-sector model to develop some testable predictions. In particular, the authors posit that the cost disease implies: (i) productivity is related to the share of labour in the health sector, and (ii) productivity is related to the ratio of prices in the health and non-health sectors. Using data from 28 OECD countries between 1995 and 2016 as well as further data on US industry group, they find no evidence to support these predictions, nor others generated by their model. One reason for this could be that wages in the last ten years or more have not risen in line with productivity in manufacturing or other ‘productive’ sectors, or that productivity has indeed increased as fast as the rest of the economy in the health care sector. Indeed, we have discussed productivity growth in the health sector in England and Wales previously. The cost disease may well then not be a cause of rising health care costs – nevertheless, health care need is rising and we should still expect costs to rise concordantly.


Thesis Thursday: Mathilde Péron

On the third Thursday of every month, we speak to a recent graduate about their thesis and their studies. This month’s guest is Dr Mathilde Péron who graduated with a PhD from Université Paris Dauphine. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Three essays on supplementary health insurance
Brigitte Dormont
Repository link

How important is supplementary health insurance in France, compared with other countries?

In France in 2016, Supplementary Health Insurance (SHI) financed 13.3% of total health care expenditure. SHI supplements a partial mandatory coverage by covering co-payments as well as medical goods and services outside the public benefit package, such as dental and optical care or balance billing. SHI is not a French singularity. Canada, Austria, Switzerland, the US (with Medicare / Medigap) or the UK do offer voluntary SHI contracts. A remarkable fact, however, is that 95% of the French population is covered by a SHI contract. In comparison, although the extent of public coverage is very similar in France and in the UK, the percentage of British patients enrolled in a private medical insurance is below 15%.

The large SHI enrolment and the subsequent limited out-of-pocket payments – €230 per year on average, the lowest among EU countries – should not hide important inequalities in the extent of coverage and premiums paid. SHI coverage is now mandatory for employees of the private sector. They benefit from subsidized contracts and uniform premiums. Individuals with an annual income below €8,700 benefit from free basic SHI coverage which covers copayments, essentially. However, the rest of the population (students, temporary workers, unemployed, retirees, independent, and civil servants) buy SHI in a competitive market where premiums generally increase with age.

Can supplementary health insurance markets lead to an adverse selection death spiral?

Competitive health insurance markets are subject to asymmetric information that prevent the existence of pooling contracts (Rothschild and Stiglitz, 1976Cutler and Zeckhauser, 1998). The US market is a good example; in the 1950s not-for-profit insurance companies (Blue Cross, Blue Shields) – which offered pooled contracts – almost all disappeared (Thomasson, 2002). And, despite a notably higher public coverage that could limit adverse selection effects, the French SHI market is not an exception.

Historically, SHI coverage was provided by not-for-profit insurers, the Mutuelles, who relied on solidarity principles. But as the competition becomes more intense, the Mutuelles experience the adverse selection death spiral; they lose their low-risk clients attracted by lower premiums. To survive, they have to give up on uniform premiums and standardized coverage. Today 90% of SHI contracts in the individual market have premiums that increase with age. It is worth noting that in France insurers have strong fiscal incentives to avoid medical underwriting, so age remains the only predictor for individual risk. Still, premiums can vary with a ratio of 1 to 3, which raises legitimate concerns about the affordability of insurance and access to health care for patients with increasing medical needs.

How does supplementary health insurance influence prices in health care, and how did you measure this in your research?

A real policy concern is that SHI might have an inflationary effect by allowing patients to consume more at higher prices. Access to specialists who balance bill (i.e. charge more than the regulated fee) – a signal for higher quality and reduced waiting times – is a good example (Dormont and Peron, 2016).

To measure the causal impact of SHI on balance billing consumption we use original individual-level data, collected from the administrative claims of a French insurer. We observe balance billing consumption and both mandatory and SHI reimbursements for 43,111 individuals from 2010 to 2012. In 2010, the whole sample was covered by the same SHI contract, which does not cover balance billing. We observe the sample again in 2012 after that 3,819 among them decided to switch to other supplementary insurers, which we assume covers balance billing. We deal with the endogeneity of the decision to switch by introducing individual effects into the specifications and by using instrumental variables for the estimation.

We find that individuals respond to better coverage by increasing their proportion of visits to a specialist who balance bills by 9%, resulting in a 32% increase in the amount of balance billing per visit. This substitution to more expensive care is likely to encourage the rise in medical prices.

Does the effect of supplementary insurance on health care consumption differ according to people’s characteristics?

An important result is that the magnitude of the impact of SHI on balance billing strongly depends on the availability of specialists. We find no evidence of moral hazard in areas where specialists who do not charge balance billing are readily accessible. On the contrary, in areas where they are scarce, better coverage is associated with a 47% increase in the average amount of balance billing per consultation. This result suggests that the most appropriate policy to contain medical prices is not necessarily to limit SHI coverage but to monitor the supply of care in order to guarantee patients a genuine choice of their physicians.

We further investigate the heterogeneous impact of SHI in a model where we specify individual heterogeneity in moral hazard and consider its possible correlation with coverage choices (Peron and Dormont, 2017 [PDF]). We find evidence of selection on moral hazard: individuals with unobserved characteristics that make them more likely to ask for comprehensive SHI show a larger increase in balance billing per visit. This selection effect is likely to worsen the inflationary impact of SHI. On the other hand, we also find that the impact of a better coverage is larger for low-income people, suggesting that SHI plays a role in access to care.

Have the findings from your PhD research influenced your own decision to buy supplementary health insurance?

As an economist, it’s interesting to reflect on your own decisions, isn’t it? Well, I master cost-benefit analysis, I have a good understanding of expected utility and definitely more information than the average consumer in the health insurance market. Still, my choice of SHI might appear quite irrational. I’m (reasonably) young and healthy, I could have easily switched to a contract with lower premiums and higher benefits, but I did not. I stayed with a contract where premiums mainly depend on income and benefits are standardized, an increasingly rare feature in the market. I guess that stresses out the importance of other factors in my decision to buy SHI, my inertia as a consumer, probably, but also my willingness to pay for solidarity.

Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 2nd October 2017

Every Monday our authors provide a round-up of some of the most recently published peer reviewed articles from the field. We don’t cover everything, or even what’s most important – just a few papers that have interested the author. Visit our Resources page for links to more journals or follow the HealthEconBot. If you’d like to write one of our weekly journal round-ups, get in touch.

The path to longer and healthier lives for all Africans by 2030: the Lancet Commission on the future of health in sub-Saharan Africa. The Lancet [PubMedPublished 13th September 2017

The African continent has the highest rates of economic growth, the fastest growing populations and rates of urbanisation, but also the highest burden of disease. The challenges for public health and health care provision are great. It is no surprise then that this Lancet commission on the future of health in Sub-Saharan Africa runs to 57 pages yet still has some notable absences. In the space of a few hundred words, it would be impossible to fully discuss the topics in this tome, these will appear in future blog posts. For now, I want to briefly discuss a lack of consideration of the importance of political economy in the Commission’s report. For example, the report notes the damaging effects of IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs in the 70s and 80s. These led to a dismantling of much of the public sector in indebted African nations in order for them to qualify for further loans. However, these issues have not gone away. Despite strongly emphasizing that countries in Africa must increase their health spending, it does not mention that many countries spend much more servicing debt than on public health and health care. Kenya, for example, will soon no longer qualify for aid as it becomes a middle-income country, and yet it spends almost double (around $6 billion) servicing its debt than it does on health care (around $3 billion). Debt reform and relief may be a major step towards increasing health expenditure. The inequalities in access to basic health services reflect the disparities in income and wealth both between and within countries. The growth of slums across the continent is stark evidence of this. Residents of these communities, despite often facing the worst exposure to major disease risk factors, are often not recognised by authorities and cannot access health services. Even where health services are available there are still difficulties with access. A lack of regulation and oversight can lead the growth of a rentier class within slums as those with access to small amounts of capital, land, or property act as petty landlords. So while some in slum areas can afford the fees for basic health services, the poorest still face a barrier even when services are available. These people are also those who have little access to decent water and sanitation or education and have the highest risk of disease. Finally, the lack of incentives for trained doctors and medical staff to work in poor or rural areas is also identified as a key problem. Many doctors either leave for wealthier countries or work in urban areas. Doctors are often a powerful interest group and can influence macro health policy, distorting it to favour richer urban areas. Political solutions are required, as well as the public health interventions more widely discussed. The Commission’s report is extensive and worth the time to read for anyone with an interest in the subject matter. What also becomes clear upon reading it is the lack of solid evidence on health systems and what works and does not work. From an economic perspective, much of the evidence pertaining to health system functioning and efficiency is still just the results from country-level panel data regressions, which tell us very little about what is actually happening. This results in us being able to identify areas needed for reform with very little idea of how.

The relationship of health insurance and mortality: is lack of insurance deadly? Annals of Internal Medicine [PubMedPublished 19th September 2017

One sure-fire way of increasing your chances of publishing in a top-ranked journal is to do something on a hot political topic. In the UK this has been seven-day services, as well as other issues relating to deficiencies of supply. In the US, health insurance is right up there with the Republicans trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. This paper systematically reviews the literature on the relationship between health insurance coverage and the risk of mortality. The theory being that health insurance permits access to medical services and therefore treatment and prevention measures that reduce the risk of death. Many readers will be familiar with the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, in which the US state of Oregon distributed access to increased Medicaid expansion by lottery, therein creating an RCT. This experiment, which takes a top spot in the review, estimated that those who had ‘won’ the lottery had a mortality rate 0.032 percentage points lower than the ‘losers’, whose mortality rate was 0.8%; a relative reduction of around 4%. Similar results were found for the quasi-experimental studies included, and slightly larger effects were found in cohort follow-up studies. These effects are small. But then so is the baseline. Most of these studies only examined non-elderly, non-disabled people, who would otherwise not qualify for any other public health insurance. For people under 45 in the US, the leading cause of death is unintentional injury, and its only above this age that cancer becomes the leading cause of death. If you suffer major trauma in the US you will (for the most part) be treated in an ER insured or uninsured, even if you end up with a large bill afterwards. So it’s no surprise that the effects of insurance coverage on mortality are very small for these people. This is probably the inappropriate endpoint to be looking at for this study. Indeed, the Oregon experiment found that the biggest differences were in reduced out-of-pocket expenses and medical debt, and improved self-reported health. The review’s conclusion that, “The odds of dying among the insured relative to the uninsured is 0.71 to 0.97,” is seemingly unwarranted. If they want to make a political point about the need for insurance, they’re looking in the wrong place.

Smoking, expectations, and health: a dynamic stochastic model of lifetime smoking behavior. Journal of Political Economy [RePEcPublished 24th August 2017

I’ve long been sceptical of mathematical models of complex health behaviours. The most egregious of which is often the ‘rational addiction’ literature. Originating with the late Gary Becker, the rational addiction model, in essence, assumes that addiction is a rational choice made by utility maximising individuals, whose preferences alter with use of a particular drug. The biggest problem I find with this approach is that it is completely out of touch with the reality of addiction and drug dependence, and makes absurd assumptions about the preferences of addicts. Nevertheless, it has spawned a sizable literature. And, one may argue that the model is useful if it makes accurate predictions, regardless of the assumptions underlying it. On this front, I have yet to be convinced. This paper builds a rational addiction-type model for smoking to examine whether learning of one’s health risks reduces smoking. As an illustration of why I dislike this method of understanding addictive behaviours, the authors note that “…the model cannot explain why individuals start smoking. […] The estimated preference parameters in the absence of a chronic illness suggest that, for a never smoker under the age of 25, there is no incentive to begin smoking because the marginal utility of smoking is negative.” But for many, social and cultural factors simply explain why young people start smoking. The weakness of the deductive approach to social science seems to rear its head, but like I said, the aim here may be the development of good predictive models. And, the model does appear to predict smoking behaviour well. However, it is all in-sample prediction, and with the number of parameters it is not surprising it predicts well. This discussion is not meant to be completely excoriating. What is interesting is the discussion and attempt to deal with the endogeneity of smoking – people in poor health may be more likely to smoke and so the estimated effects of smoking on longevity may be overestimated. As a final point of contention though, I’m still trying to work out what the “addictive stock of smoking capital” is.