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Health policy has long been preoccupied with the problem that health insurance stimulates spending (“moral hazard”). However, much health spending is costly healthcare that uninsured individuals could not otherwise access. Field studies comparing those with more or less insurance cannot disaggregate moral hazard versus access. Moreover, studies of patients consuming routine low-dollar healthcare are not informative for the high-dollar healthcare that drives most of aggregate healthcare spending in the United States.

We test indemnities as an alternative theory-driven counterfactual. Such conditional cash transfers would maintain an opportunity cost for patients, unlike standard insurance, but also guarantee access to the care. Since indemnities do not exist in U.S. healthcare, we fielded two blinded vignette-based survey experiments with 3,000 respondents, randomized to eight clinical vignettes and three insurance types. Our replication uses a population that is weighted to national demographics on three dimensions.

We found that most or all of the spending due to insurance would occur even under an indemnity. The waste attributable to moral hazard is undetectable. We conclude that for high-cost care, policymakers should be more concerned about the foregone efficient spending for those lacking full insurance, rather than the wasteful spending that occurs with full insurance.

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