Via Marginal Revolution, here is a big new paper by three top academics reviewing all the recent evidence on the question. I would summarize it as follows:
- health insurance leads to a significant improvement in people's financial situation: fewer bankruptcies, fewer run-ins with bill collectors;
- health insurance leads to a general reduction in life stress;
- health insurance leads to a large (circa 30%) reduction in depression, probably through a combination of stress reduction and treatment;
- health insurance leads to modest improvements in the lives of people with chronic conditions;
- health insurance leads people to feel better about their health, with more reporting good health and fewer reporting bad; this sounds trivial but actually over a ten-year period people who say they have poor health have a mortality rate two to eight times higher than people who report good health, so it is one of the most powerful measures we have;
- health insurance leads to a reduction in mortality rates equal to one fewer death per year for each 239 to 830 people who get insurance
None of this is cheap, of course; one study found that one life was saved for each $327,000 to $867,000 the government spends on Medicaid expansion.
Some libertarians have argued that having insurance doesn't matter because poor people manage to get the most important care by showing up at emergency rooms, and this is true to some extent. But I find this to be a bizarre argument, because the cost of their care has to be paid by someone, and under the current system that means it is paid by people who do have insurance. Does that make sense?
Plus, you know, Americans say they are upset about inequality. Pretty much the only significant thing the government has done recently to fight this problem is Obamacare, which takes hundreds of billions from the rich to give the working class health insurance. I think that is a good idea.