When a Medicaid Card Isn't Enough
By Paul Shafer, PhD
May 17, 2022
Paul Shafer is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Law, Policy and Management at the Boston University School of Public Health and co-director of the Boston University Medicaid Policy Lab. His research focuses on the effects of state and federal health insurance policy on coverage, health care use and health equity. Paul is a member of the 2022 Tradeoffs Research Council.
A certain segment of the health policy world (myself included) spends a lot of time trying to get more states to expand Medicaid and reduce underinsurance. But are we doing enough to make sure care is accessible once people enroll? One issue is access to physicians, who are less likely to treat patients on Medicaid than Medicare or private insurance because Medicaid payment rates are lower.
A new paper in Health Affairs by Avital Ludomirsky and colleagues looked at how well the networks of physicians supposedly participating in Medicaid reflect access to care. The researchers used claims data and provider directories from Medicaid managed care plans (the private insurers that most states contract with to run their Medicaid programs) in Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee from 2015 and 2017 to assess how the delivery of care to Medicaid patients was distributed among participating doctors. Their results were striking:
One-quarter of primary care physicians provided 86% of the care; one-quarter of specialists provided 75%.
One-third of both types of physicians saw fewer than 10 Medicaid patients per year, hardly contributing any “access” at all.
There was only one psychiatrist for every 8,834 Medicaid enrollees after excluding those seeing fewer than 10 Medicaid patients per year. This is especially concerning given that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened mental health in the U.S., particularly among children.
The authors note that their study only covers primary care and mental health providers in four states, so it is not necessarily generalizable to other states or specialties. But these results are still concerning.
States have so-called network adequacy standards for their Medicaid managed care plans that are supposed to make sure there are enough providers. These standards typically rely on either a radius (a certain number of providers for a geographic area) or ratio (number of providers per enrollee), but the authors’ findings show these methods fall short if they are based on directories alone.
The authors specifically recommend states use claims-based assessments like the ones in the study and “secret shopper” programs — like this recently published one from Maryland by Abigail Burman and Simon Haeder — to better evaluate whether plans are offering adequate access to physicians. We absolutely need people to have coverage, but it needs to be more than just a card in their wallet.