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Forum for Health Economics & Policy

Editor-in-Chief: Goldman, Dana

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Health Care, Health Insurance, and the Distribution of American Incomes

Gary Burtless1 / Pavel Svaton2

1The Brookings Institution,

2l’Ecole d’économie de Toulouse,

Citation Information: Forum for Health Economics & Policy. Volume 13, Issue 1, ISSN (Online) 1558-9544, DOI: https://doi.org/10.2202/1558-9544.1194, February 2010

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Cash income offers an incomplete picture of the resources available to finance household consumption. Most American families are covered by an insurance plan that pays for some or all of the health care they consume. Only a comparatively small percentage of families pays for the full cost of this insurance out of their cash incomes. As health care has claimed a growing share of consumption, the percentage of care that is financed out of household incomes has declined. Because health care consumption is more important for some groups in the population than others, the growth in spending and changes in the payment system for medical care have reduced the value of standard income measures for assessing relative incomes of the rich and poor and the young and old. More than a seventh of total personal consumption now consists of health care that is purchased with government insurance and employer contributions to employee health plans. This paper combines health care spending and insurance reimbursement data in the Medical Expenditure Panel Study and money income and health coverage data in the Current Population Survey to assess the impact of health insurance on the distribution of income. Our estimates imply that gross money income significantly understates the resources available to finance household purchases. The estimates imply that a more complete measure of resources would show less inequality than the income measures that are currently used. The addition of estimates of the value of health insurance to countable incomes reduces measured inequality in the population and the income gap between young and old. If the analysis were extended over a longer period, it would show a sizeable impact of insurance on inequality trends in the United States.

Keywords: health insurance; inequality; income distribution

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