Unbiased Analysis of Today's Healthcare Issues

Moral Hazard and health insurance: The author of ‘The Tipping Point’ weighs in

Written By: Jason Shafrin - Mar• 13•06

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of the best selling book The Tipping Point. In his August 2005 New Yorker article (“The Moral Hazard Myth“), he gives a wonderful description moral hazard, the major reason many economists oppose overly generous health insurance schemes. A few excerpts:

  • “Moral hazard” is the term economists use to describe the fact that insurance can change the behavior of the person being insured…If you have a no-deductible fire-insurance policy, you may be a little less diligent in clearing the brush away from your house. The savings-and-loan crisis of the nineteen-eighties was created, in large part, by the fact that the federal government insured savings deposits of up to a hundred thousand dollars, and so the newly deregulated S. & L.s made far riskier investments than they would have otherwise. Insurance can have the paradoxical effect of producing risky and wasteful behavior. Economists spend a great deal of time thinking about such moral hazard for good reason. Insurance is an attempt to make human life safer and more secure. But, if those efforts can backfire and produce riskier behavior, providing insurance becomes a much more complicated and problematic endeavor.In 1968, the economist Mark Pauly argued that moral hazard played an enormous role in medicine, and, as John Nyman writes in his book “The Theory of the Demand for Health Insurance,” Pauly’s paper has become the “single most influential article in the health economics literature.” Nyman, an economist at the University of Minnesota, says that the fear of moral hazard lies behind the thicket of co-payments and deductibles and utilization reviews which characterizes the American health-insurance system. Fear of moral hazard, Nyman writes, also explains “the general lack of enthusiasm by U.S. health economists for the expansion of health insurance coverage (for example, national health insurance or expanded Medicare benefits) in the U.S.”
  • The moral-hazard argument makes sense, however, only if we consume health care in the same way that we consume other consumer goods, and to economists like Nyman this assumption is plainly absurd. We go to the doctor grudgingly, only because we’re sick. “Moral hazard is overblown,” the Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt says. “You always hear that the demand for health care is unlimited. This is just not true. People who are very well insured, who are very rich, do you see them check into the hospital because it’s free? Do people really like to go to the doctor? Do they check into the hospital instead of playing golf?”

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