From the Journals

Costs are keeping Americans out of the doctor’s office



The cost of health care is keeping more Americans from seeing a doctor, even as the number of individuals with insurance coverage increases, according to a new study.

“Despite short-term gains owing to the [Affordable Care Act], over the past 20 years the portion of adults aged 18-64 years unable to see a physician owing to the cost increased, mostly because of an increase among persons with insurance,” Laura Hawks, MD, of Cambridge (Mass.) Health Alliance and Harvard Medical School in Boston and colleagues wrote in a new research report published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Proportion of population unable to see a physician because of cost

“In 2017, nearly one-fifth of individuals with any chronic condition (diabetes, obesity, or cardiovascular disease) said they were unable to see a physician owing to cost,” they continued.

Researchers examined 20 years of data (January 1998 through December 2017) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System to identify trends in unmet need for physician and preventive services.

Among adults aged 18-64 years who responded to the survey in 1998 and 2017, uninsurance decreased by 2.1 percentage points, falling from 16.9% to 14.8%. But at the same time, the portion of adults who were unable to see a physician because of cost rose by 2.7 percentage points, from 11.4% to 15.7%. Looking specifically at adults who had insurance coverage, the researchers found that cost was a barrier for 11.5% of them in 2017, up from 7.1% in 1998.

These results come against a backdrop of growing medical costs, increasing deductibles and copayments, an increasing use of cost containment measures like prior authorization, and narrow provider networks in the wake of the transition to value-based payment structures, the authors noted.

“Our finding that financial access to physician care worsened is concerning,” Dr. Hawks and her colleagues wrote. “Persons with conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and poor health status risk substantial harms if they forgo physician care. Financial barriers to care have been associated with increased hospitalizations and worse health outcomes in patients with cardiovascular disease and hypertension and increased morbidity among patients with diabetes.”

One of the trends highlighted by the study authors is the growing number of employers offering plans with a high deductible.

“Enrollment in a high-deductible health plan, which has become increasingly common in the last decade, a trend uninterrupted by the ACA, is associated with forgoing needed care, especially among those of lower socioeconomic status,” the authors wrote. “Other changes in insurance benefit design, such as imposing tiered copayments and coinsurance obligations, eliminating coverage for some services (e.g., eyeglasses) and narrowing provider networks (which can force some patients to go out-of-network for care) may also have undermined the affordability of care.”

There was some positive news among the findings, however.

“The main encouraging finding from our analysis is the increase in the proportion of persons – both insured and uninsured – receiving cholesterol checks and flu shots,” Dr. Hawk and her colleagues wrote, adding that this increase “may be attributable to the increasing implementation of quality metrics, financial incentives, and improved systems for the delivery of these services.”

However, not all preventive services that had cost barriers eliminated under the ACA saw improvement, such as cancer screening. They note that the proportion of women who did not receive mammography increased during the study period and then plateaued, but did not improve following the implementation of the ACA. The authors described the reasons for this as “unclear.”

Dr. Hawks received funding support from an Institutional National Research Service award and from Cambridge Health Alliance, her employer. Other authors reported membership in Physicians for a National Health Program.

SOURCE: Hawks L et al. JAMA Intern Med. 2020 Jan 27. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.6538.

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