Policymakers seeking to target health policies efficiently towards specific population groups need to know which individuals stand to benefit the most from each of these policies. While traditional approaches for subgroup analyses are constrained to only consider a small number of pre-defined subgroups, recently proposed causal machine learning (CML) approaches help explore treatment-effect heterogeneity in a more flexible yet principled way. Causal forests use a generalisation of the random forest algorithm to estimate heterogenous treatment effects both at the individual and the subgroup level. Our paper aims to explore this approach in the setting of health policy evaluation with strong observed confounding, applied specifically to the context of mothers’ health insurance enrolment in Indonesia. Comparing two health insurance schemes (subsidised and contributory) against no insurance, we find beneficial average impacts of enrolment in contributory health insurance on maternal health care utilisation and infant mortality, but no impact of subsidised health insurance. The causal forest algorithm identified significant heterogeneity in the impacts of contributory insurance, not just along socioeconomic variables that we pre-specified (indicating higher benefits for poorer, less educated, and rural women), but also according to some other characteristics not foreseen prior to the analysis, suggesting in particular important geographical impact heterogeneity. Our study demonstrates the power of CML approaches to uncover unexpected heterogeneity in policy impacts. The findings from our evaluation of past health insurance expansions can potentially guide the re-design of the eligibility criteria for subsidised health insurance in Indonesia.
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© 2021, The Author(s).