There is a new and very good paper on that question by Amy Finkelstein, Nathaniel Hendren, and Mark Shepard (pdf). In reality, the price elasticity of demand for health insurance is quite high, at least among lower-income groups:
How much are low-income individuals willing to pay for health insurance, and what are the implications for insurance markets? Using administrative data from Massachusetts’ subsidized insurance exchange, we exploit discontinuities in the subsidy schedule to estimate willingness to pay and costs of insurance among low-income adults…For at least 70 percent of the low-income eligible population, we find that willingness to pay for insurance is far below the average cost curve – what it would cost insurers to provide coverage to all who would enroll if the premium were set equal to that WTP. Adverse selection exists, despite the presence of the coverage mandate, but is not the driving force behind low take up. We estimate that willingness to pay is only about one-third of own costs; thus even if insurers could offer actuarially fair, type-specific prices, at least 70 percent of the market would be uncovered.
That is from both the abstract and conclusion. I do understand the ideal of universal coverage, but note this:
For example, we estimate that subsidizing insurer prices by 90% would lead only about three-quarters of potential enrollees to buy insurance.
The somewhat depressing and underexplored implication is that the beneficiaries do not love Obamacare as much as some of you do. In fact you may remember a result from last year, from the research of Mark Pauly, indicating that “close to half” of households covered by the unsubsidized mandate, by the standards of their own preferences, would prefer not to purchase health insurance. And that was before some of the recent rounds of premium increases, and overall these new results seem to imply even lower demands for health insurance relative to cash.
Now, I think it is an open question how much “non-paternalism” is the correct moral stance here. Maybe we should force upon people more health insurance than they would purchase in an adverse selection-free market, because a) they are ill-informed, b) they have children, or c) ex post we still need to take care of them in some way, if indeed their gamble to not purchase insurance turns out badly.
Do, however, note the words of the authors: “We conclude that the size of uncompensated care for low-income populations provides a plausible explanation for their low WTP.” In other words, many of the poor do not value health insurance nearly as much as many planners feel they ought to, in large part because they are already getting some health care.
In any case, consider a political economy point if nothing else. If you institute a policy that forces on people more health insurance than they think they wish to buy, do not be shocked if a huckster comes along offering them a supposedly better deal, and gets away with it.
Along related lines, consider also this result:
From the perspective of social welfare, to justify connecting the 5% least dense areas of North Carolina would require each adopting household value high speed wired broadband access at more than $1519 per month.
For the pointers I thank Peter Metrinko and Kevin Lewis.