In an echo of my blog post of November 17, 2013, “Dead Man Walking: People still die from lack of health insurance”, the New York Times’ lead article on November 29, 2013 was “Medicaid growth could aggravate doctor shortage”. The main point in my blog was that, to the degree that there is a doctor shortage exacerbated by increasing the number of people who have health insurance (from Medicaid expansion or insurance exchanges or any other reason), the shortage was already there. If the reason that it was not felt earlier was because people, not having health insurance, did not seek care, does not change the fact that these people were here and were as sick as they were or are. To the extent that they were not getting health care because they were uninsured is a scandal. If anything, that people will now have coverage and thus seek care is an unmasking of an extant but unmet need.
The Times article looks particularly at Medicaid because many doctors will not see Medicaid patients since the payments do not cover their costs (or, in many cases, because they can fill their schedules with people who have better-paying health insurance). Those physicians who do accept Medicaid often feel that they will not be able to take more Medicaid patients for the same reason, and it is unlikely that those who are already not accepting Medicaid will begin to. The problem is significant for primary care, even for institutions like Los Angeles’ White Memorial Hospital that already care for large numbers of Medicaid patients. In the NY Times article, my friend Dr. Hector Flores, Chair of the Family Medicine Department at White Memorial, notes that his group’s practice already has 26,000 Medicaid patients and simply does not have capacity to absorb a potential 10,000 more that they anticipate will obtain coverage in their area.
The problem for access to specialists may be even greater. There are already limited numbers of specialists caring for Medicaid patients in California and elsewhere, for the reasons described above: they have enough well-insured patients, and Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California) pays poorly. It is also possible that some specialists have less of a sense of social responsibility (even to care for a small proportion of patients who have Medicaid or are uninsured), and their expectations for income are may be higher. The San Diego ENT physician featured at the start of the Times article, Dr. Ted Mazer, is one of the relatively small number of subspecialists who do take Medicaid, but indicates that he will not be able to take more because of the low reimbursement.
Clearly, Dr. Mazer and Dr. Flores’ group are not the problem, although it is likely that they will bear a great deal of the pressure under Medicaid expansion; if their practices have been accepting of Medicaid up until now, they are likely to get more people coming. The Beverly Hills subspecialists (see: ads in any airline magazine!) who have never seen Medicaid, uninsured, or poor people up until now are unlikely to find them walking into their offices. And, if they call, will not schedule them. So what, in fact, is the real problem?
That depends a bit upon where you sit and how narrow or holistic your viewpoint is. From the point of view of doctors, or the health systems in which they work, the problem is inadequate reimbursement. As a director of a family medicine practice, I know that you have to pay the physicians and the staff. For providers working for salaries, it is the system they work for that needs to make money to pay them. The article notes that community clinics may be able to provide primary care, but does not note that many of them are Federally-Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) which receive much higher reimbursement for Medicaid and Medicare patients than do other providers. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) will reimburse primary care providers an enhanced amount for Medicaid for two years, through 2014, and yet not only is there no assurance that this will continue, but in many cases has yet to be put into place. And the specialists are not receiving this enhanced reimbursement (although the truth is that many of them already received significantly higher reimbursement for their work than primary care physicians).
From a larger system point of view, Medicaid pays poorly because the federal and state governments that pay for it (although the federal government will pay 100% of the expansion for 4 years and 90% after that) want to spend less. However, they do not want to be perceived as allowing lower quality of care for the patients covered by Medicaid, so they often put in requirements for quality that increase costs to providers which increases the resistance of those already reluctant to accept it. Another factor to be considered is that Medicaid has historically not covered all poor people; rather it mainly covers young children and their mothers, a generally low-risk group. (It also covers nursing home expenses for poor people, which generally consumes a higher percent of the budget.) Expansion of Medicaid to everyone who makes 133% of poverty means that childless adults, including middle-aged people under 65 who have chronic diseases but have been uninsured, will now have coverage.
While the main impact of Medicaid expansion is in states like California that actually have expanded the program, even in states like mine (Kansas), which have not, Medicaid enrollment has gone up because of all the publicity, which has led people already eligible but not enrolled to become aware of their eligibility (called, by experts, the “woodwork effect”). The Kansas Hospital Association has lobbied very hard for Medicaid expansion, but this has not occurred because the state has prioritized its political opposition to “Obamacare”. The problem for hospitals is that the structure of ACA relies on the concurrent implementation of a number of different programs. Medicare reimbursements have been cut, as have “disproportionate share” (DSH) payments to hospitals providing a larger than average portion of unreimbursed care. This was supposed to have been made up for because now formerly uninsured people would be covered by Medicaid (that is hospitals would get something); however, with the requirement that piece removed (thanks to the Supreme Court decision and the political beliefs of governors and state legislatures), the whole operation is unstable. That is, the Medicare and DSH payments are down without increases in Medicaid.
From a larger point of view, of course, the problem is that the whole system is flawed, and while the ACA will help a lot more people, it is incomplete and is dependent on a lot of parts to work correctly and complementarily – and this does not always happen, as with lack of Medicaid expansion. A rational system would be one in which everyonewas covered, and at the same rates, so that lower reimbursement for some patients did not discourage their being seen. These are not innovative ideas; these systems exist, in one form or another in every developed country (single payer in Canada, National Health Service in Britain, multi-payer private insurance with set costs and benefits provided by private non-profit insurance companies in Switzerland, and a variety of others in France, Germany, Taiwan, Scandanavia, etc.). If payment were the same for everyone, empowered people would ensure that it was adequate. Payment should be either averaged over the population or tied to the complexity of disease and treatment (rather than what you could do, helpful or not). We would have doctors putting most of their work into the people whose needs were greatest, rather than those whose reimbursement/difficulty of care ratio was highest. There are other alternatives coming from what is often called “the right”, but as summarized in a recent blog post (“You think Obamacare is bad…”) by my colleague Dr. Allen Perkins, they are mostly, on their face, absurd.
Our country can act nobly and often has. ACA was a nice start, but now we need to move to a system that treats people, not “insurees”.