Primary Care Access for New Patients on the Eve of Health Care Reform
By Karin V. Rhodes, MD, MS; Genevieve M. Kenney, PhD; Ari B. Friedman, MS; Brendan Saloner, PhD; Charlotte C. Lawson, BA; David Chearo, MA; Douglas Wissoker, PhD; Daniel Polsky, PhD
JAMA Internal Medicine, April 7, 2014
The goal of the current study was to simulate the experience of nonelderly adults with 1 of 3 insurance types—private, Medicaid, and uninsured—seeking new patient appointments in 10 diverse states to obtain precise estimates of primary care access before the ACA coverage expansions.
Between November 13, 2012, and April 4, 2013, we made 12,907 calls to 7788 primary care practices requesting new patient appointments. Across the 10 states, 84.7% of privately insured and 57.9% of Medicaid callers received an appointment. Appointment rates were 78.8% for uninsured patients with full cash payment but only 15.4% if payment required at the time of the visit was restricted to $75 or less.
By Don McCanne, MD
This study reveals the success rates in obtaining a primary care appointment as a new patient by non-elderly adults, prior to full implementation of the Affordable Care Act. So what was it like then, what will the Affordable Care Act do for that, and what would single payer have done to change the results?
Being privately insured provided the greatest probability of success in obtaining an appointment – 85% were able to do so. Close to that – at 79% – were new patients who would pay cash in full at the time of the visit. Medicaid patients had more difficulty – with only 58% being able to make an appointment. Worst of all was for those who would pay cash, but no more than $75 at the time of the visit – only 15% were successful.
Of course, this is what we’ve known all along. Privately insured patients have good access, Medicaid patients have poorer access by virtue of being covered by an underfunded welfare program, and uninsured patients with limited resources have the worst access of all. Those willing to pay cash in full may have been covered by a high-deductible plan but, in any event, were likely to to have the means to pay upfront charges. So money or good insurance will open the doors, whereas Medicaid is dependent on the willingness of the primary care provider to participate in the Medicaid program, and being poor and uninsured… well, good luck.
What will happen now that ACA is well on its way to full implementation? The answer is complex, which is no surprise because the ACA model is itself complex. Let’s look at each category of coverage.
For the very wealthy who are quite willing to pay full fees in cash, and the scheduling staff of the primary care practice understands that, access should approach 100%. If any queues exist, those individuals likely can buy their way to the front of the queue.
For privately insured individuals, whether obtaining coverage through employment or through individually purchased plans within or outside of the exchanges, access may be less than it is now since insurers with the new narrower networks exclude many primary care professionals from their panels. Most individuals will not want to select an out-of-network primary care professional, especially since out-of-pocket costs could be staggering since the cap applies only to in-network care (except for certain emergencies).
Even those employer-sponsored plans that ACA was designed to protect are now moving in the direction of higher deductibles, narrower networks, and even private exchanges with a shift to defined-contribution vouchers. Although the percentage of practices accepting specific insurance plans will decline because of the doctor being excluded from the networks, patients will probably still choose private plans as being their best option. It’s just that they will have to shop more before they find practices that accept their specific insurance.
Finding primary care practices that accept Medicaid may be more difficult. Although there is a temporary increase in primary care evaluation and management payments, that will end very soon. It is likely that there will not be much of an increase in the number of physicians who will agree to accept the low Medicaid payment rates. If those who do accept Medicaid find that the increased volume is crowding out their privately insured patients, then they may feel that they have to cut back or eliminate accepting new Medicaid patients as well.
With an increase in Medicaid managed care organizations, Medicaid patients may have this option, but then that limits their access since they must go to the managed care providers. Also the low payment rates for Medicaid managed care organizations may result in relatively spartan care merely because of the insufficiency of funds. Another possibility is that federally-qualified health centers may be able to increase their capacity because of new funds authorized by ACA. Hopefully these two expansions will provide enough capacity to ensure access of Medicaid patients to at least some form of primary care.
Access for the low-income uninsured – and there will be tens of millions of them – will certainly continue to be impaired. If Congress further expands the funding of federally-qualified health centers, then the uninsured will have that option. But specialized care will likely be out of reach for most.
So, in general, access to primary care is unlikely to change to any major degree as the result of the provisions of ACA. Patients will have less choice of providers, more exposure to out-of-pocket costs, but an increase in funding should improve access to other options such as Medicaid managed care organizations or federally-qualified health centers – especially important for low-income individuals.
What if we had a single payer system instead? Primary care practices would never have to ask a new patient what insurance they had, or whether they intended to pay cash. Patients would never have to check network lists to see whom they could call. (There would still be some “networks” such as Kaiser Permanente, but they would be integrated health systems that patients would choose because of their own preferences.)
With single payer, never again would a new patient have to hear this response from a receptionist: “New patient? What kind of insurance do you have? Oh, I’m sorry. The doctor isn’t able to accept any new patients now.”