March 9 (UPI) -- A study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has shown that elderly mortality has decreased by 2.2 percent annually since 2006 due to Medicare Part D, Medicare's prescription drug coverage.
The research is the first to show that the increase in drug utilization attributable to Medicare Part D may save lives.
"A big question in health economics is 'Do public health insurance programs improve people's health?'" Julian Reif, professor of finance and economics at the University of Illinois, said in a press release. "You would think the answer would be obvious, but it's a hard thing to prove. This paper provides strong evidence that health insurance programs improve health and that reducing the price of medical care also improves health."
The study compared trend differences in mortality between people age 66 who had been eligible for Medicare Part D for a least one year and people age 64 who were not yet eligible for the program.
Researchers found a 2.2 percent annual decrease in the mortality rate among 66-year-olds compared to 64-year-olds, driven primarily by a 4.4 percent reduction in cardiovascular mortality.
"We employed detailed cause-of-death mortality records for the entire U.S. population, which allowed us to measure mortality, a relatively rare event, very precisely," Reif said. "A lot of other studies can't look at mortality because their sample size is too small."
Medicare Part D provides benefits to 39 million Medicare beneficiaries at a cost of $70 billion a year. The study found the social value of the reduction in elderly mortality attributable to Medicare Part D to be $5 billion per year. That combined with previous studies evaluating its non-health benefits led to a total benefit of roughly $20 billion per year, according to Reif.
"There's certainly more to health than how long you live," Reif said. "We look at mortality because it's easy to measure. But you take prescription drugs not just to live longer but also to relieve pain or to manage symptoms. There are quality-of-life benefits as well that come from healthcare; it's just harder to measure those. But it's reasonable to think that if you're finding mortality effects there are drugs that are also making useful quality-of-life improvements, as well."
The study was published in the Journal of Health Economics.