Expanding Insurance May Not Mean Long Lines and Trouble Seeing the Doctor

September 26, 2014
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When health reform made it on the agenda in 2008-9, it took almost no time to hear the old familiar line that government-run health care will mean rationing, with crowded waiting rooms and the dreaded prospect of it taking months or years to get seen by the doctor or have an important surgery performed. It didn’t matter when Brits and Canadians chimed in to say, “Actually, it’s not like that here at all.” Americans succumbed to the combination of logic and fear.

When health reform made it on the agenda in 2008-9, it took almost no time to hear the old familiar line that government-run health care will mean rationing, with crowded waiting rooms and the dreaded prospect of it taking months or years to get seen by the doctor or have an important surgery performed. It didn’t matter when Brits and Canadians chimed in to say, “Actually, it’s not like that here at all.” Americans succumbed to the combination of logic and fear.

Does more insurance mean longer lines?The logic is apparent: If more people have the ability to go to the doctor, and there isn’t suddenly a corresponding increase in doctors, then either doctors are going to have to see more patients in less time (potentially reducing quality), or patients are going to have to wait to be seen (and we don’t like to wait). Given my parenthetical explanations in the preceding sentence, do I even need to elaborate on the fear aspect?

There’s just one important question: Is that really what will happen? This is where the good folks at Harvard who do health policy and health services research are so lucky. In Massachusetts, which basically implemented ObamaCare at the state level years before ObamaCare came into being, we have a nice policy laboratory to investigate this question. That’s precisely what Karen Joynt and colleagues did, as they report in a recent article in Health Services Research.

The very short version of what they did is this: Using Medicare data, they looked to see if people with chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension had fewer outpatient visits to the doctor after the Massachusetts health reform was enacted, compared to the number of visits they had before the reform. They also looked at some quality metrics in the same way. That is, did the patients get the treatments we know they are supposed to get? And they also looked at health care costs. The cool thing about this is that they were able to use patients in other New England states that didn’t have health reform as controls. That means that their study design is really able to attribute any changes they see in Massachusetts above and beyond what they see elsewhere in New England to the health reform in Massachusetts.

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The very short version of what they found is this: There was no decrease in health care visits or health care quality in Massachusetts because of health reform, but there was an increase in costs. Now, there are some limitations to what they did, but the authors acknowledge these nicely. The biggest issue is that Massachusetts had a low rate of uninsured persons to begin with, so their health care system was less flooded with newly insured than other places–like Kentucky–might be thanks to the ACA. The other big issue is that the study only examined the Medicare population age 65 and up, so we have no idea if the under-65 disabled Medicare population and everyone else may have experienced issues getting seen by a doctor. Still, despite these limitations, the study offers a ray of hope that our health care delivery system is responsive enough to adapt to an increase in demand without making us suffer lengthy waits to be seen for outpatient care, and that the ACA may well end up doing more good than harm.

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