Our Unpublished Response to McArdle

Unfortunately, the letter I drafted with colleagues in response to Megan McArdle’s March 2010 The Atlantic article “Myth Diagnosis” was not published in the magazine. Those that were did not make the same points we did (letters available online). Below is the text of our letter.

To The Atlantic Editor:

Megan McArdle’s March 2010 article, “Myth Diagnosis,” distorts the scientific record in asserting that, “Quite possibly, lack of health insurance has no more impact on your health than lack of flood insurance.” Citing a tiny fraction of the literature on this topic, she concludes that we should know far more about the relationship between health insurance and mortality before considering major reforms to the health care system. But we already know vastly more than McArdle lets on.

For example, she characterized one study, which did not find a decrease in mortality risk due to insurance, as “what may be the largest and most comprehensive analysis yet done of the effect of insurance on mortality.” That sounds as if this single study is determinative. Yet no study in a social science could be. In truth, that insurance and the access to care it facilitates improves health and reduces mortality risk is as close to an incontrovertible truth as one can find in social science.

Viewed as a whole, the body of evidence shows that this relationship is well established. Last year, comprehensive literature reviews conducted by the Institute of Medicine and published in the Milbank Quarterly concluded that the overwhelming majority of well-conducted studies have found important health benefits of insurance, including lower risk of mortality. In addition to quasi-experimental research, several observational studies by leading researchers that controlled for a robust set of characteristics have demonstrated a 35-43% greater risk of death within 8-10 years for adults who were uninsured at baseline and even higher relative risks for older uninsured adults with treatable chronic conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension. These and other relevant studies are described in three online summaries posted in response to McArdle’s article—by Stan Dorn on Ezra Klein’s blog at the Washington Post (tinyurl.com/StanDorn), Harold Pollack on The New Republic’s The Treatment blog (tinyurl.com/HPollack), and by J. Michael McWilliams on Austin Frakt’s blog The Incidental Economist (tinyurl.com/JMMcWill).

But McArdle did not make her readers aware of this body of evidence. Instead, she cherry-picked work that supported her conclusion, ignoring every study published since 1994 that is inconsistent with her argument. It is one thing to argue that we should reassess proposed approaches to health reform. It is quite another to misrepresent a body of work in support of that conclusion and further mislead readers that such work does not exist.

No one could object to The Atlantic‘s support for a wide range of opinion columns. But The Atlantic is a respected, widely read home to intellectually honest and rigorous journalism. One hopes that, before publishing an article like McArdle’s at a key juncture of the national debate over health reform, the magazine’s editors would have made sure that the article fairly reflected the available evidence. Sadly, McArdle’s article did not come close to meeting that standard.

Austin Frakt, PhD
Assistant Professor of Health Policy and Management
School of Public Health
Boston University

Stan Dorn, JD
Senior Fellow
Urban Institute

Jack Hadley, PhD
Professor and Senior Health Services Researcher
Dept. of Health Policy and Management
George Mason University

Aaron E. Carroll, MD, MS
Associate Professor of Pediatrics
Director, Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research
Indiana University School of Medicine

Lisa I. Iezzoni, MD, MSc
Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
Director, Mongan Institute for Health Policy
Massachusetts General Hospital

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