by Rebecca Haffajee
Earlier this week, the Boston Globe reported that medical debt is still a problem in Massachusetts, with scant change since the implementation of health reform legislation in 2006. Specifically, the article reports that of approximately 3,000 adults surveyed in 2010, 17.5% had trouble paying medical bills in the past year and 20% were carrying medical debt and paying it over time, statistically insignificant changes since 2006. The source of this finding is the Massachusetts Health Reform Survey (MHRS) funded by Blue Cross Blue Shield of MA Foundation, whose latest results published in January 2012 track annual trends from 2006 – 2010. The Globe story seems to suggest that in the absence of reductions in medical debt, health reform is failing to achieve one of its goals. The survey findings, however, don’t present a story of causal inference; they (at best) identify a loose association.
Just to recap some basics of MA health reform: the law required most residents to obtain insurance. It established Commonwealth Care through the Health Connector – an exchange of sorts – so that low income residents not eligible for Medicaid could qualify for a subsidized plan. The Connector also offers Commonwealth Choice non-subsidized plans for individuals and employers. Since passage of the law, insurance coverage among MA residents has increased from 94% to 98%.
The MHRS study design consists of 1 “pre” measurement, or the survey fielded in 2006 just before reform implementation, and 4 “post” measurements (2007-2010). This design fails to provide a reliable counterfactual that reveals what would have happened in the absence of the health reform “treatment”. A slightly better design would have administered survey questions for many years before health reform implementation. But even this design would be considered somewhat weak for causal inference given the presence of other factors that could have happened concurrently with the policy change that could explain outcomes. For instance, the recession could dramatically impact how much medical debt is incurred or not paid off, even with health insurance — especially with the proliferation of high deductible health plans in recent years.