Much American health policy over the past thirty-five years has focused on reducing the additional health care that is consumed when a person becomes insured, that is, reducing moral hazard. According to conventional theory, all of moral hazard represents a welfare loss to society because its cost exceeds its value. Empirical support for this theory has been provided by the RAND Health Insurance Experiment, which found that moral hazard—even moral hazard in the form of effective and appropriate hospital procedures—could be reduced substantially using cost-sharing policies with little or no measurable effect on health.
This article critically analyzes these two cornerstones of American health policy. It holds that a large portion of moral hazard actually represents health care that ill consumers would not otherwise have access to without the income that is transferred to them through insurance. This portion of moral hazard is efficient and generates a welfare gain. Further, it holds that the RAND experiment's finding (that health care could be reduced substantially with little or no effect on health) may actually be caused by the large number of participants who voluntarily dropped out of the cost-sharing arms of the experiment. Indeed, almost all of the reduction in hospital use in the cost-sharing plans could be attributed to this voluntary attrition. If so, the RAND finding that cost sharing could reduce health care utilization, especially utilization in the form of effective and appropriate hospital procedures, with no appreciable effect on health is spurious.
The article concludes by observing that the preoccupation with moral hazard is misplaced and has worked to obscure policies that would better reduce health care expenditures. It has also led us away from policies that would extend insurance coverage to the uninsured.