As many wonder about the future of affordable health care, a pair of Ivy League researchers point to the success of the Massachusetts model, which pioneered a universal requirement for health insurance in 2006. Over the ensuing years, residents of the New England state — white, black, Hispanic — grew healthier, with the poor making large gains. Best of all, they did this under the administration of former Gov. Mitt Romney, who ran unsuccessfully for president last year opposing the federal “Obamacare.”

In The Milbank Quarterly, Philip Van der Wees, a Dutch researcher formerly with Harvard University, says the expansion of health care insurance in the state generally improved the health of residents, though other factors may share some of the credit. At the very least, the data shows that more residents got screened for colon and cervical cancers and had their cholesterol levels checked.

"Everyone has been looking over the past few years at Massachusetts, which was the first state to show the rest of the U.S. that near-universal coverage could be achieved," Van der Wees, said in a statement. "We found that people have gained in general, mental, and physical health, and that some preventive measures improved.”

In the study, the investigators analyzed data collected by the federal government on some 345,000 residents of New England states. Even after excluding data from Vermont and Maine, which launched smaller-scale reforms, rising health metrics suggested a significant effect.

However, Van der Wees also acknowledges that Massachusetts is not Mississippi, an argument Romney now uses to justify opposition to similarly affordable health care made possible by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010. Last month, Romney told NBC's David Gregory on Meet the Press that health insurance costs were more expensive in Massachusetts. “The right way to deal with health care reform is not to have a one-size-fits-all plan that’s imposed on all the states, but recognizing the differences between different states’ populations, states should be able to craft their own plans to get all their citizens insured and to make sure that preexisting conditions are covered.”

Van der Wees says that although Massachusetts began its experiment with a higher level of insurance than others, the state more or less provides a good model. “We found that people have gained in general, mental, and physical health, and that some preventive measures improved,” he said. “We would hope that this would be a blueprint for the rest of the U.S., though Massachusetts is not the average state, because it began from a higher level of insurance.”

Co-investigator John Z. Ayanian, now director of the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, likewise backed the possibility of government-supervised, market-based health care reform. "Our results demonstrate the potential benefits of health care reform in Massachusetts that may also be achieved through the implementation of the federal [ACA]," he said. "And, just as with the ACA, the impact of broader health insurance coverage in Massachusetts is intertwined with the effects of numerous efforts in the public and private sector to improve health care quality and contain costs.”

Although conservatives continue to predict the failure of affordable health care insurance reform, Obama looks to Massachusetts. “The worst predictions about health care reform in Massachusetts never came true,” Obama said in late October. “They’re the same arguments that you’re hearing now… and it’s because you guys had a proven model that we built the Affordable Care Act on this template of proven, bipartisan success. Your law was the model for the nation’s law.”

Source: Van Der Wees PJ, Zaslavsky AM, Ayanian JZ. Improvements In Health Status After Massachusetts Health Care Reform. The Milbank Quarterly. 2013.doi: 10.1111/1468-0009.12029