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Bankruptcy as Implicit Health Insurance

May 2011
Working Paper
By  Neale Mahoney
This paper examines the interaction between health insurance and the implicit insurance that people have because they can file (or threaten to file) for bankruptcy. With a simple model that captures key institutional features, I demonstrate that the financial risk from medical shocks is capped by the assets that could be seized in bankruptcy. For households with modest seizable assets, this implicit “bankruptcy insurance” can crowd out conventional health insurance. I test these predictions using variation in the state laws that specify the type and level of assets that can be seized in bankruptcy. Because of the differing laws, people who have the same assets and receive the same medical care face different losses in bankruptcy. Exploiting the variation in seizable assets that is orthogonal to wealth and other household characteristics, I show that households with fewer seizable assets are more likely to be uninsured. This finding is consistent with another: uninsured households with fewer seizable assets end up making lower out-of-pocket medical payments. The estimates suggest that if the laws of the least debtor-friendly state of Delaware were applied nationally, 16.3 percent of the uninsured would buy health insurance. Achieving the same increase in coverage would require a premium subsidy of approximately 44.0 percent. To shed light on puzzles in the literature and examine policy counterfactuals, I calibrate a utility-based, micro-simulation model of insurance choice. Among other things, simulations show that “bankruptcy insurance” explains the low take-up of high-deductible health insurance.