Health Care Policy by Common Sense?

By David Orentlicher

[Cross-posted at HealthLawProfs]

In announcing the federal government’s approval of Indiana’s Medicaid expansion, Governor Mike Pence invoked common sense in defending his insistence that beneficiaries shoulder a share of their health care premiums. According to Pence, “It’s just common sense that when people take greater ownership of their health care, they make better choices.”

But relying on common sense is not a good way to make health policy. Common sense leads people to incorrectly believe that they are more likely to catch a cold by going out in cold weather or to take megadoses of vitamins that provide no additional health benefit and can be toxic. Common sense also leads physicians down the wrong path. Because lowering blood sugar has been good for the health of diabetics, medical experts recommended tight control of blood sugar levels. But that resulted in an increased risk of death for many patients.

It turns out that our intuitions often lead us astray, making it important that we rely on data from scientific studies to distinguish between good and bad policies. And we know from the data to date that when the poor are required to pay for their health care, they may choose to forgo it, not only when care is not needed but also when it is needed.

Kudos to Governor Pence for bringing the Medicaid expansion to Indiana and for worrying about health care costs. It may turn out that Indiana’s cost-sharing is low enough to avoid problems, but rather than trying to contain costs by discouraging patients from seeking too much care, we should try to discourage physicians from providing too much care. Physicians are better able than patients to distinguish between necessary care and unnecessary care.