A free market in health care doesn't ensure that people without coverage are protected in case of illness, and thus government involvement is necessary, a University of Arizona economist says.

"The case to be made is we don't want to let grandma or grandpa die," says Gautam Gowrisankaran, a professor of economics at the Eller College of Management. Gowrisankaran has researched the economics of health care, including aspects of the Affordable Care Act.

"As a society, we made a decision that we have to take care of grandma and grandpa," he says. "Elderly people often have big health complications. If we’re not going to let them die, then the best way to provide health care for them is to have a program that guarantees that when they get sick, get a heart attack or cancer or whatever it is, that we’ll treat them."

Gowrisankaran says that while some call for a free market health-care system, it doesn't work well because of the high costs for care.

"I think there is a potential for a completely unregulated free market to work well," he says. "But there’s a lot of draconian assumptions that have to go with it. If you get sick, the financial consequences can be huge. It’s a market where you need insurance."

If people were not required to have health insurance, as they are under the Affordable Care Act, they face certain consequences, Gowrisankaran says.

"We could envision a world where we … don’t force people to get health insurance, where they get it if they want it," he says. "If they get sick and they have health insurance, they get treated. Or if they get sick, and they don’t have health insurance, we say, ‘Sorry, you’re going to die.’

"We just don’t live in that kind of world."