Preventative Care Doesn’t Save Money
A longstanding claim—that I myself believed to be true—is that spending money on preventative care like regular checkups would save money in the long run by catching health issues before they become acute. The evidence does not support this.
Aaron Carroll at The Upshot (“Preventive Care Saves Money? Sorry, It’s Too Good to Be True“):
The idea that spending more on preventive care will reduce overall health care spending is widely believed and often promoted as a reason to support reform. It’s thought that too many people with chronic illnesses wait until they are truly ill before seeking care, often in emergency rooms, where it costs more. It should follow then that treating diseases earlier, or screening for them before they become more serious, would wind up saving money in the long run.
Unfortunately, almost none of this is true.
Let’s begin with emergency rooms, which many people believed would get less use after passage of the Affordable Care Act. The opposite occurred. It’s not just the A.C.A. The Oregon Medicaid Health Insurance experiment, which randomly chose some uninsured people to get Medicaid before the A.C.A. went into effect, also found that insurance led to increased use of emergency medicine. Massachusetts saw the same effect after it introduced a program to increase the number of insured residents.
Emergency room care is not free, after all. People didn’t always choose it because they couldn’t afford to go to a doctor’s office. They often went there because it was more convenient. When we decreased the cost for people to use that care, many used it more.
Wellness programs, based on the idea that we can save money on health care by giving people incentives to be healthy, don’t actually work this way. As my colleague Austin Frakt and I have found from reviewing the research in detail, these programs don’t decrease costs — at least not without being discriminatory.
Accountable care organizations rely on the premise that improving outpatient and preventive care, perhaps with improved management and coordination of services for those with chronic conditions, will save money. But a recent study in Health Affairs showed that care coordination and management initiatives in the outpatient setting haven’t been drivers of savings in the Medicare Shared Savings Program.
There’s little reason to believe that even more preventive care in general is going to save a fortune. A study published in Health Affairs in 2010 looked at 20 proven preventive services, all of them recommended by the United States Preventive Services Task Force. These included immunizations, counseling, and screening for disease. Researchers modeled what would happen if up to 90 percent of these services were used, which is much higher than we currently see.
They found that this probably would have saved about $3.7 billion in 2006. That might sound like a lot, until you realize that this was about 0.2 percent of personal health care spending that year. It’s a pittance — and that was with almost complete compliance with recommendations.
One reason for this is that all prevention is not the same. The task force doesn’t model costs in its calculations; it models effectiveness and a preponderance of benefits and harms. When something works, and its positive effects outweigh its adverse ones, a recommendation is made.
This doesn’t mean it saves money.
In 2009, as part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Synthesis Project, Sarah Goodell, Joshua Cohen and Peter Neumann exhaustively explored the evidence. They examined more than 500 peer-reviewed studies that looked at primary (stopping something from happening in the first place) or secondary (stopping something from getting worse) prevention. Of all the interventions they looked at, only two were truly cost-saving: childhood immunizations (a no-brainer) and the counseling of adults on the use of low-dose aspirin. An additional 15 preventive services were cost-effective, meaning that they cost less than $50,000 to $100,000 per quality adjusted life-year gained.
Of course, the fact that we don’t see any cost savings doesn’t mean that early care isn’t worthwhile. As Carroll notes, we do see real increases in quality and length of life–things worth paying for.