THE BLOG
02/21/2014 04:10 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2014

Yes, Obamacare Critics, Health Insurance Does Make You Healthier

Michael Barone and Charles Krauthammer have some medical advice for you: Don't get health insurance, they say. It won't make you healthier. It's a waste of money.

They must be desperate. They don't want to admit that they've run out of criticisms of Obamacare. The website is working, enrollments are surging, and millions of Americans are getting affordable, high-quality health insurance. They couldn't deny these facts, so they needed a new argument to discredit the law -- and they found it tucked away in the New England Journal of Medicine.

In 2008, Oregon conducted an experiment. They held a random lottery. They picked 20,745 names out of a waiting list of 90,000 low-income adults who wanted to sign up for Medicaid. Of the winners, half received Medicaid, and half did not. After two years, they compared the two groups to see if the ones who had Medicaid were any better off.

Barone and Krauthammer claim that the Medicaid group did not have better health than the uninsured group, proving the futility of health insurance, but their conclusion is based on a very narrow, selective reading of the evidence.

It's true that the individuals on Medicaid did not fare any better than their uninsured counterparts on blood tests for cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure. But it's also true that the Medicaid patients scored higher on the mental quality-of-life test, experienced significantly lower rates of depression, and reported that they felt healthier.

The Medicaid patients also experienced significantly less financial strain. They were 25 percent less likely to have an unpaid medical bill sent to a collection agency.

In other words, health insurance has significant mental and financial benefits.

In this study, the physical benefits are less clear, but that's not surprising, given that it only lasted two years and it only measured three simple blood levels. Fortunately, other researchers have measured more than just cholesterol.

A 2008 study in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, for example, revealed that uninsured patients were significantly more likely to develop advanced-stage cancer because they didn't receive early screening to detect it.

A year later, Harvard researchers published a study in the Annals of Surgery showing that uninsured patients who arrived at the emergency room with traumatic injuries were almost twice as likely to die in the hospital as patients with insurance, even if they had the same race, gender, age and severity of injury. Later that year, a similar study was conducted at the Boston Children's Hospital and published in the Journal of Pediatric Surgery. It found that uninsured children were more than three times as likely to die from traumatic injuries as children with commercial insurance.

And if all that wasn't enough to convince you, the American Journal of Public Health published a study that same year comparing the death rates of the insured and the uninsured when they had the same education, income, weight, rates of smoking and drinking, etc. They concluded that 44,789 Americans die every year simply because they don't have health insurance.

That is the bottom line we should be talking about.

If the Oregon experiment were carried out beyond two years, the differences between the insured and the uninsured would accumulate. They found that the Medicaid patients were 70 percent more likely to visit the doctor, 20 percent more likely to have their cholesterol monitored, and for the women, 60 percent more likely to get a mammogram. Those kinds of preventive measures don't make a huge impact in two years, but in the long run, they can mean the difference between life and death.

Health insurance is so beneficial to your health, in fact, that its effects spillover and benefit those of us around you. Studies have shown, for instance, that companies that offer health insurance are more productive because insured workers take 52 percent fewer "sick days" than their uninsured co-workers.

I have to wonder if Barone and Krauthammer have ever even met anyone on Medicaid. I wonder if they know the terrible fear that uninsured Americans feel when they get sick and they're forced to choose between astronomical medical bills and untreated illness.

I think they should find out. If they're so confident that health insurance doesn't affect your health, then I would like to issue this challenge to them: Give up your own health insurance. Don't waste another penny on it. Join the ranks of the uninsured.

If not, if they're unwilling to follow their own advice, then they should stop giving it. They should stop spreading misinformation that can hurt millions of Americans who read their op-ed columns and who depend on the access to lifesaving medical care that only health insurance can provide.

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An abbreviated version of this op-ed was published in today's South Florida Sun-Sentinel.