Did Obamacare make it easier for patients to see a doctor?

One of the goals of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) was to increase access to primary care physicians. The notion is that if people have insurance it would be easier for them to get appointments with primary care physicians. This is because many physicians are unwilling to accept new patients who are uninsured.

Further, a key component of the ACA was to increase physician reimbursement for Medicaid because this program was a major mechanism for expanding insurance coverage. Medicaid reimbursement has always been low — significantly lower than Medicare pays for the same encounter — so many physicians would not take it. The ACA drafters hoped higher reimbursement would entice these physicians to accept Medicaid. We don’t know if any of these assumptions are correct, but a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests a positive impact.

The authors’ method was a bit sneaky, I suppose. They had trained field staff call physicians’ offices posing as potential patients asking for new appointments. They were divided into two groups; one group said they had private insurance, the other said they had Medicaid. The authors compared two time periods — before and after the early implementation of the ACA. A sample of states were compared to see if the rates of acceptance of new Medicaid patients was associated with a particular state increasing physician Medicaid reimbursement.

The results were not striking, but they suggest a significant positive trend. This is what the results showed, in the authors’ words:

The availability of primary care appointments in the Medicaid group increased by 7.7 percentage points, from 58.7% to 66.4%, between the two time periods. The states with the largest increases in availability tended to be those with the largest increases in reimbursements, with an estimated increase of 1.25 percentage points in availability per 10% increase in Medicaid reimbursements (P=0.03). No such association was observed in the private-insurance group.

Again, these are data from the early days of ACA implementation. But they are encouraging. One of the most important components of slowing the seemingly inexorable rise in health care costs is getting people good primary and preventative care. This keeps people with a chronic, manageable condition out of the emergency room and, one hopes, out of the hospital. This is particularly the case with common conditions like diabetes and asthma. For both of those disorders, regular care by a primary care physician can spare patients much suffering and save many thousands of dollars.

I hope this kind of research continues as the ACA matures. It’s a good way to see if the overall goals are being met. Of course, it raises a new challenge: Making sure we have enough primary care physicians. Right now, we don’t.

Christopher Johnson is a pediatric intensive care physician and author of Keeping Your Kids Out of the Emergency Room: A Guide to Childhood Injuries and Illnesses, Your Critically Ill Child: Life and Death Choices Parents Must Face, How to Talk to Your Child’s Doctor: A Handbook for Parents, and How Your Child Heals: An Inside Look At Common Childhood Ailments. He blogs at his self-titled site, Christopher Johnson, MD.

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