The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2017, The New York Times Company) while I was on vacation.
When you have a health problem, your first stop is probably to your primary care doctor. If you’ve found it harder to see your doctor in recent years, you could be tempted to blame the Affordable Care Act. As the health law sought to solve one problem, access to affordable health insurance, it risked creating another: too few primary care doctors to meet the surge in appointment requests from the newly insured.
Studies published just before the 2014 coverage expansion predicted a demand for millions more annual primary care appointments, requiring thousands of new primary care providers just to keep up. But a more recent study suggests primary care appointment availability may not have suffered as much as expected.
The study, published in April in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that across 10 states, primary care appointment availability for Medicaid enrollees increased since the Affordable Care Act’s coverage expansions went into effect. For privately insured patients, appointment availability held steady. All of the gains in access to care for Medicaid enrollees were concentrated in states that expanded Medicaid coverage. For instance, in Illinois 20 percent more primary care physicians accepted Medicaid after expansion than before it. Gains in Iowa and Pennsylvania were lower, but still substantial: 8 percent and 7 percent.
Though these findings are consistent with other research, including a study of Medicaid expansion in Michigan, they are contrary to intuition. In places where coverage gains were larger — in Medicaid expansion states — primary care appointment availability grew more.
“Given the duration of medical education, it’s not likely that thousands of new primary care practitioners entered the field in a few years to meet surging demand,” said the Penn health economist Daniel Polsky, the lead author on the study. There are other ways doctor’s offices can accommodate more patients, he added.
One way is by booking appointment requests further out, extending waiting times. The study findings bear this out. Waiting times increased for both Medicaid and privately insured patients. For example, the proportion of privately insured patients having to wait at least 30 days for an appointment grew to 10.5 percent from 7.1 percent.
The study assessed appointment availability and wait times, both before the 2014 coverage expansion and in 2016, using so-called secret shoppers. In this approach, people pretending to be patients with different characteristics — in this case with either Medicaid or private coverage — call doctor’s offices seeking appointments.
Improvement in Medicaid enrollees’ ability to obtain appointments may come as a surprise. Of all insurance types, Medicaid is the least likely to be accepted by physicians because it tends to pay the lowest rates. But some provisions of the Affordable Care Act may have enhanced Medicaid enrollees’ ability to obtain primary care.
The law increased Medicaid payments to primary care providers to Medicare levels in 2013 and 2014 with federal funding. Some states extended that enhanced payment level with state funding for subsequent years, but the study found higher rates of doctors’ acceptance of Medicaid even in states that didn’t do so.
The Affordable Care Act also included funding that fueled expansion of federally qualified health centers, which provide health care to patients regardless of ability to pay. Because these centers operate in low-income areas that are more likely to have greater concentrations of Medicaid enrollees, this expansion may have improved their access to care.
Other trends in medical practice might have aided in meeting growing appointment demand. “The practice and organization of medical care has been dynamic in recent years, and that could partly explain our results,” Mr. Polsky said. “For example, if patient panels are better managed by larger organizations, the trend towards consolidation could absorb some of the increased demand.”
Although the exact explanation is uncertain, what is clear is that the primary care system has not been overwhelmed by coverage expansion. Waiting times have gone up, but the ability of Medicaid patients to get appointments has improved, with no degradation in that aspect for privately insured patients.