Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 10th October 2016

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.

This week’s journal round up-is a special edition featuring a series of papers on health econometrics published in this month’s issue of the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series A.

Healthcare facility choice and user fee abolition: regression discontinuity in a multinomial choice setting. JRSS: A [RePEcPublished October 2016

Charges for access to healthcare – user fees – present a potential barrier to patients in accessing medical services. User fees were touted in the 1980s as a way to provide revenue for healthcare services in low and middle income countries, improve quality, and reduce overuse of limited services. However, a growing evidence base suggests that user fees do not achieve these ends and reduce uptake of preventative and curative services. This article seeks to provide new evidence on the topic using a regression discontinuity (RD) design while also exploring the use of RD with multinomial outcomes. Based on South African data, the discontinuity of interest is that children under the age of six are eligible for free public healthcare whereas older children must pay a fee; user fees for the under sixes were abolished following the end of apartheid in 1994. The results provide evidence that removal of user fees resulted in more patients using public healthcare facilities than costly private care or care at home. The authors describe how their non-parametric model performs better, in terms of out-of-sample predictive performance, than the parametric model. And when the non-parametric model is applied to examine treatment effects across income quantiles we find that the treatment effect is among poorer families and that it is principally due to them switching between home care and public healthcare. This analysis supports an already substantial literature on user fees, but a literature that has previously been criticised for a lack of methodological rigour, so this paper makes a welcome addition.

Do market incentives for hospitals affect health and service utilization?: evidence from prospective pay system–diagnosis-related groups tariffs in Italian regions. JRSS: A [RePEcPublished October 2016

The effect of pro-market reforms in the healthcare sector on hospital quality is a contentious and oft-discussed topic, not least due to the difficulties with measuring quality. We critically discussed a recent, prominent paper that analysed competitive reforms in the English NHS, for example. This article examines the effect of increased competition in Italy on health service utlisation: in the mid 1990s the Italian national health service moved from a system of national tariffs to region-specific tariffs in order for regions to better incentivise local health objectives and reflect production costs. For example, the tariffs for a vaginal delivery ranged from €697 to €1,750 in 2003. This variation between regions and over time provides a source of variation to analyse the effects of these reforms. The treatment is defined as a binary variable at each time point for whether the regions had switched from national to local tariffs, although one might suggest that this disposes of some interesting variation in how the policy was enacted. The headline finding is that the reforms had little or no effect on health, but did reduce utilisation of healthcare services. The authors interpret this as suggesting they reduce over-utilisation and hence improve efficiency. However, I am still pondering how this might work: presumably the marginal benefit of treating patients who do not require particular services is reduced, although the marginal cost of treating those patients who do not need it is likely also to be lower as they are healthier. The between-region differences in tariffs may well shed some light on this.

Short- and long-run estimates of the local effects of retirement on health. JRSS: A [RePEcPublished October 2016

The proportion of the population that is retired is growing. Governments have responded by increasing the retirement age to ensure the financial sustainability of pension schemes. But, retirement may have other consequences, not least on health. If retirement worsens one’s health then delaying the retirement age may improve population health, and if retirement is good for you, the opposite may occur. Retirement grants people a new lease of free time, which they may fill with health promoting activities, or the loss of activity and social relations may adversely impact on ones health and quality of life. In addition, people who are less healthy may be more likely to retire. Taken all together, estimating the effects of retirement on health presents an interesting statistical challenge with important implications for policy. This article uses the causal inference method du jour, regression discontinuity design, and the data are from that workhorse of British economic studies, the British Household Panel Survey. The discontinuity is obviously the retirement age; to deal with the potential reverse causality, eligibility for the state pension is used as an instrument. Overall the results suggest that the short term impact on health is minimal, although it does increase the risk of a person becoming sedentary, which in the long run may precipitate health problems.

 

Other articles on health econometrics in this special issue:

The association between asymmetric information, hospital competition and quality of healthcare: evidence from Italy.

This paper finds evidence that increased between hospital competition does not lead to improved outcomes as patients were choosing hospitals on the basis of information from their social networks. We featured this paper in a previous round-up.

A quasi-Monte-Carlo comparison of parametric and semiparametric regression methods for heavy-tailed and non-normal data: an application to healthcare costs.

This article considers the problem of modelling non-normally distributed healthcare costs data. Linear models with square root transformations and generalised linear models with square root link functions are found to perform the best.

Phantoms never die: living with unreliable population data.

Not strictly health econometrics, more demographics, this article explores how to make inferences about population mortality rates and trends when there are unreliable population data due to fluctuations in birth patterns. For researchers using macro health outcomes data, such corrections may prove useful.

Credits

No borders, no nations, no user charges

It was recently proposed that, here in the UK, foreigners should start having to pay towards their health care because of the apparent budgetary pressure from ‘health tourists’. Let’s be clear upfront; this isn’t a problem. If you believe the media, ‘health tourism’ costs the NHS around £30m per year. That’s less than 0.03% of the NHS budget. And the evidence suggests immigrants don’t use much health care anyway. Nevertheless, at some point in the future, this issue may really need addressing.

The case for treating everyone

The moral case seems obvious; everybody has an equal right to health care. If you think nobody has a right to health care, that’s fine too, but why should foreigners’ health be of less value? Economics, arguably, has a great cosmopolitan and egalitarian tradition. Most economists have been driven by their discipline to accept humans as being equal; even if they’re immigrants. This perspective, I suspect, extends to health economists in the UK.

The NHS constitution does not discriminate against foreigners, so it would presumably need changing if user charges for immigrants are introduced. It states that “public funds for healthcare will be devoted solely to the benefit of the people that the NHS serves“, but does not state who is included in “the people”. I’d like to think it includes anyone who happens to be within our borders at their time of need. Surely it should at least include NHS employees; many of whom are immigrants. If we decide not to treat foreigners for free it means that we do not value their health gains equal to ours. Indeed, the implication here is that any health care they receive is at the expense of a native. If this is the case then we health economists will need to adjust our cost-effectiveness analyses to shift any observed benefits for immigrants to the cost side of the equation.

I totally buy in to the moral case for open borders. It matters not to me whether you were born in England or not; nor does it matter to me whether or not you pay taxes. What’s more important to me is that you are willing to pay taxes, and I know plenty of born-and-bred Brits who would readily shirk their tax-paying responsibilities given the chance. For me an immigrant or a tourist has as much right to health care as an unemployed native. One cannot oppose treatment of immigrants on the grounds that they do not pay taxes without also opposing treatment for the unemployed. Case closed.

Moral arguments aside, plenty of services provided by the NHS also resemble public goods. The spread of infectious disease is an obvious risk of discouraging foreigners from seeking treatment. Furthermore, poor health may prevent or discourage immigrants from entering the labour market. It seems possible, if not likely, that charging immigrants a nominal fee for their health care would cost more than it saved. Hopefully we’ll see more evidence either way in the future.

The case against treating everyone

I can’t fathom a moral objection. Xenophobia might be to blame for the recent policy proposal, but I’ll leave it to others to try and figure out the moral arguments against treating everyone. Practically, however, and it pains me to say this, in the case of the NHS we could potentially have a problem. If a health care system is funded through national health insurance or taxation, the system can’t afford to insure the global population. Milton Friedman would probably agree on this point. The availability of welfare is likely to attract migrants who hope to receive it. Rational agents with health care needs would flock to the UK for treatment.

The budgetary pressure of ‘health tourists’, in the extreme, could dramatically reduce the average health expenditure per NHS patient. More care for ‘health tourists’ leads to less care for natives, and it seems difficult to justify reductions in the quality of care. Just to reiterate, this isn’t a problem right now. The tiny nugget of the budget that goes towards treating ‘health tourists’ does not jeopardise the quality of care provided by the NHS. I am speaking in hypothetical terms here of a situation which hopefully will never arise, but for which we should have a solution.

The solution

I don’t know. Obviously every country in the world should provide high quality universal health care that is free at the point of delivery; regardless of one’s nationality. This might happen some day. Let’s hope it does. In the meantime let’s stop legislating for problems that don’t yet exist.

What do you think? Vote in the poll and share your thoughts in the comments box below