The Hill

90% Of Americans Now Have Health Insurance: Does Having Coverage Make You Healthier?

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Going to the doctor for regular check-ups might not make you any healthier than people who don't, but it might improve your quality of life. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Thanks to Obamacare, almost 90 percent of Americans have heath insurance now, according to new data released by the federal government Wednesday. The report examined health insurance trends from 2013 until now and found that the number of uninsured people in the U.S. has continuously been decreasing.

The report, released by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), found that the percentage of uninsured adults aged 18 to 64 decreased from 16.3 percent in 2014 to 13 percent in the first three months of 2015. It also found that the percentage of children under the age of 18 with private coverage increased from 52.6 percent in 2013 to 56.3 percent in 2015. Perhaps most notable was the fact that the greatest decrease in uninsured Americans were among the poorest in the country.

In theory, it’s great to hear that more and more people have access to healthcare coverage. But here’s the question that we have scrutinized for quite some time now: Does having health insurance make people healthier overall? Though the answer to that question can be debated, some recent experiments and studies can give us hints about whether having health insurance is the same as being healthy.

In 2008, economists wanted to try out an experiment in Oregon in which a limited number of Medicaid spots were given out to people by lottery. Researchers tracked the people who won the lottery as well as those who didn’t; both groups of people had the same general health characteristics. In 2013, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine outlined their results from the past several years. They found that having Medicaid didn’t make patients any healthier than those who did not have insurance — they still had the same cholesterol and blood pressure levels as the others.

That being said, however, the researchers pointed out that there are benefits to having health insurance. As the authors of the study wrote: “This randomized, controlled study showed that Medicaid coverage generated no significant improvements in measured physical health outcomes in the first two years, but it did increase use of health care services, raise rates of diabetes detection and management, lower rates of depression, and reduce financial strain.”

In other words, health insurance actually might have mental health benefits — which includes less stressing about finances. Anthony Orlando discuses the results of the Oregon study in an op-ed piece in The Huffington Post : “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,” he writes. “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.”

In addition, the Medicaid patients were more likely to visit the doctor, get their cholesterol checked, and among women, to get mammograms. One 2008 study found that people with no health insurance were less inclined to get cancer screenings, and as a result were more likely to develop advanced-stage cancer than those who were privately-insured (interestingly, however, people insured with Medicaid fared just as poorly as uninsured people).

The link between healthcare and health is a complex topic, and involves a lot of different factors — genetics, environment, individual motivation to stay healthy, and being careful — and researchers will need to do some more tracking of the health of both insured and uninsured to come to a stronger conclusion.

Ultimately, however, it boils down to keeping your own health in check. It’s possible that people with health insurance are more likely to keep an eye on their health, even if the same diseases befall us all, insured or not. So while physically we might not see that much of a difference between the insured and uninsured, maybe the emphasis should lie on how health insurance can improve quality of life — and peace of mind — as a whole.

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