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Two years ago, a landmark study found that having Medicaid health insurance makes a positive difference in people's lives. Backers of the program have repeatedly pointed to that study. They want to encourage states to expand the program through the federal health law. But now, those same researchers have dug a little deeper into their data, and the new results aren't as positive. As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, this latest study will provide talking points to both sides of the Medicaid debate.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: The study in this week's New England Journal of Medicine looked at about 21,000 people from a Medicaid waiting list in Oregon between 2008 and 2010. The state's financial difficulties actually afforded a rare chance for researchers to study similarly situated people, some of whom got Medicaid coverage and some of whom didn't. Katherine Baicker at the Harvard School of Public Health is one of the leaders of the research team.
DR. KATHERINE BAICKER: They drew names from that waiting list by lottery, which provides randomization. The treatment group was selected in the lottery, and the control group didn't get that opportunity.
ROVNER: For the first part of the study, researchers looked at things like how much health care people used, how much money they spent out of pocket, and whether they thought Medicaid improved their health. Overall, the findings were uniformly positive, said Baicker. People used more care, spent less money.
BAICKER: And last, we found big improvements in self-reported health. We asked people how they felt, how their health interfered with their normal daily activities, and they reported substantial gains when they got Medicaid coverage relative to the randomly assigned control group that didn't have Medicaid coverage.
ROVNER: For this current study, however, the researchers wanted to go a little deeper. Rather than just asking people if they felt better, they wanted to see if they actually were healthier after getting medical treatment using their Medicaid coverage. So they did personal visits that included medical tests like blood pressure and cholesterol screening. But the results there were not so positive.
BAICKER: We did not see any measurable improvements in physical health outcomes like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes.
ROVNER: The study did find those common ailments were diagnosed and treated more often in the Medicaid group, and there was a significant decrease among the Medicaid population in the likelihood of being diagnosed with depression. And, Baicker says, there is a clear financial benefit for those who gained coverage.
BAICKER: They're protected from catastrophic financial expenditures. Medicaid coverage virtually eliminates having medical costs that are more than 30 percent of your income.
ROVNER: But she says the study also shows that Medicaid coverage comes at a cost to society and to taxpayers.
BAICKER: People on Medicaid consume a lot more health care resources, and that means they spend more money.
ROVNER: And whether that more money is worth it gives an opening to critics of the program.
DR. SCOTT GOTTLIEB: I think we're not paying attention to a lot of the problems with Medicaid even as we try to expand it, and people seem to sort of want to ignore the many flaws with the program.
ROVNER: Scott Gottlieb is a physician and resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. He says Medicaid can be fine for people who need only fairly routine care or care in a hospital. But in general, the program has been spread too thin over too many people.
GOTTLIEB: And for people who really need to access a lot of specialty services - particularly outpatient specialty services - in many states, in many cases, you just can't get access to it in a timely fashion.
ROVNER: And Gottlieb is one of many who worry about the Affordable Care Act's call to dramatically expand a program they see as far less than perfect.
GOTTLIEB: Merely expanding the program isn't resolving the challenges, and merely providing a little bit more money as the president did for primary care benefits under the program isn't going to resolve the serious challenges.
ROVNER: One obvious question would be to look at what happens to those Oregon Medicaid recipients going forward. That, however, won't be possible. Oregon found some extra money in 2010 and ended up giving people in the control group Medicaid coverage too. Good for them, not so good for the research. But Baicker says the researchers still have a lot of data already collected that they haven't analyzed yet. So this particular debate of Medicaid's impact isn't quite over. Julie Rovner, NPR News.
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