Unbiased Analysis of Today's Healthcare Issues

Does Free Health Insurance increase the poor’s access to medical care?

Written By: Jason Shafrin - Jun• 04•08

As mentioned in previous posts, most health insurance in the France public health care system involves significant copayments. While this helps to reduce the moral hazard problem, it may prevent poor individuals from utilizing the care they need. In 2000, France introduced free complementary health insurance plan which covers most out-of-pocket payments for the poorest 10% of French residents. Did this policy change increase utilization?

This is the question analyzed by Grignon, Perronnin and Lavis (2008). The authors note that three groups are effected by this change. This first is the very poor who already paid very few copays due to the existing means tested program (Aide Médicale Générale). The second group of individuals who were eligible for the complementary insurance program previously had commercial insurance, which in France is often used to finance the copayments of the national health insurance system. For the first two groups, we would expect little change in medical utilization. The third group, however, had no commercial or means tested complementary insurance and thus becoming eligible for the new French program likely will have a significant impact on access to care.


The authors do not find a strong positive effect of being eligible for the the free complementary insurance plan, but this is likely because 87% of the sample was previously eligible for means tested benefits. There was some evidence that the utilization of specialist care did increase for the population eligible for the free complementary insurance program. Individuals who enrolled voluntarily into the free plan had significantly higher probability of using all types of care.

The authors summarize their findings concerning the increased utilization of those previously not covered as follows:

“This impact of the free plan on health-care utilization of those previously not covered has three causes: (1) a true price elasticity of demand for health care among the poor: faced with a lower (indeed zero) price, individuals use more care, mostly specialist visits and drugs than when faced with a variety of co-payments averaging 23%; (2) pent-up demand: the change in utilization among those previously not covered reflects the slope of their demand as well as the stock of past unmet needs and can therefore overestimate the longer-run elasticity of demand; and (3) enrolment bias: those who voluntarily enroll may be those who expect to use health care more. “

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