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Original Investigation
Health Care Reform
Aug 8 2011

Safety-Net Providers After Health Care Reform: Lessons From Massachusetts

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Department of Health Policy (Drs Ku and Shin, Ms Jones, and Ms Byrne), George Washington University, Washington, DC; and Division of Health Policy and Management, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis (Dr Long).

Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(15):1379-1384. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.317

Background National health reform is designed to reduce the number of uninsured adults. Currently, many uninsured individuals receive care at safety-net health care providers such as community health centers (CHCs) or safety-net hospitals. This project examined data from Massachusetts to assess how the demand for ambulatory and inpatient care and use changed for safety-net providers after the state's health care reform law was enacted in 2006, which dramatically reduced the number of individuals without health insurance coverage.

Methods Multiple methods were used, including analyses of administrative data reported by CHCs and hospitals, case study interviews, and analyses of data from the 2009 Massachusetts Health Reform Survey, a state-representative telephone survey of adults.

Results Between calendar years 2005 and 2009, the number of patients receiving care at Massachusetts CHCs increased by 31.0%, and the share of CHC patients who were uninsured fell from 35.5% to 19.9%. Nonemergency ambulatory care visits to clinics of safety-net hospitals grew twice as fast as visits to non–safety-net hospitals from 2006 to 2009. The number of inpatient admissions was comparable for safety-net and non–safety-net hospitals. Most safety-net patients reported that they used these facilities because they were convenient (79.3%) and affordable (73.8%); only 25.2% reported having had problems getting appointments elsewhere.

Conclusions Despite the significant reduction in uninsurance levels in Massachusetts that occurred with health care reform, the demand for care at safety-net facilities continues to rise. Most safety-net patients do not view these facilities as providers of last resort; rather, they prefer the types of care that are offered there. It will continue to be important to support safety-net providers, even after health care reform programs are established.