Deconstructing the Misconceptions About the Benefits of Preventive Healthcare

James Wilson
June 26, 2019
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The United States Democrat Party has just hosted its first primary debate. One of the biggest issues on the table was the introduction of a universal healthcare system. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and many other candidates have endorsed Medicare for All.

At the crux of the debate is how the government is going to pay for such a monumental new program. Studies across the political spectrum have shown that Medicare for All would cost approximately $30 trillion over the course of 10 years.  Advocates of a single payer healthcare system have argued that the bill would eventually pay for itself. They state that single payer will make preventive care more accessible. In the long run, they argue that this will bring healthcare costs down.

In theory, this sounds like a sensible proposition. Unfortunately, reality does not back up these claims.  That being said, there are still clear benefits of better preventive care. Rather than focus on misconceptions about cost savings, Medicare for All activists should emphasize the improved healthcare outcomes that they provide, especially if patients used more reliable telehealth services.

 The myth of preventive healthcare lowering healthcare costs

In 2009, former President Barack Obama was trying to generate support for the Affordable Care Act.  During his lobbying, Obama claimed that his health care plan would lower healthcare costs in the future. His explanation was laid out in a simple sentence:

“Preventive health care lowers healthcare costs.”

PolitiFact quickly did an analysis of his statement. They showed that existing data did not back up this assertion.

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“But when analyzing the effects of preventive care on total spending for health care, it is important to recognize that doctors do not know beforehand which patients are going to develop costly illnesses. To avert one case of acute illness, it is usually necessary to provide preventive care to many patients, most of whom would not have suffered that illness anyway. . . Preventive care can have the largest benefits relative to costs when it is targeted at people who are most likely to suffer from a particular medical problem; however, such targeting can be difficult because preventive services are generally provided to patients who have the potential to contract a given disease but have not yet shown symptoms of having it.”

The first study that was cited came from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).  Although the CBO didn’t provide a detailed list of resources for this claim, the report did state that preventive care would not lower costs.

Other organizations had published research that supported these findings.  The new England Journal of Medicine is one of the publications that made similar comments.

The research shows that preventive health care could theoretically save money if it was restricted to individuals with a very high likelihood of contracting the disease. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to make these kinds of determinations.  Many people have various risk factors that indicate they should be given screenings and other preventative treatments. The problem is that they don’t have symptoms yet. These risk factors tend to be in accurate predictors in many cases, so a targeted preventive health care plan would be unlikely to save money with them.

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What are the real benefits of preventive healthcare?

Although preventive health care does not lower healthcare costs in general, there are still clear benefits of it.  The real benefit of preventive health care is that it improves healthcare outcomes for patients that would otherwise get sick.

This is the real selling point of a universal healthcare system. Life expectancy is in the United States trail those of other developed countries.  This could change if more people were given access to that or preventive care.