Primary Care Appointment Availability and Nonphysician Providers One Year After Medicaid Expansion

After Medicaid expansion in Michigan, appointment availability for new Medicaid patients stably increased—this is perhaps attributable to increasing proportions of appointments scheduled with nonphysician providers.
Published Online: June 17, 2016
Renuka Tipirneni, MD, MSc; Karin V. Rhodes, MD, MS; Rodney A. Hayward, MD; Richard L. Lichtenstein, PhD; HwaJung Choi, PhD; Elyse N. Reamer, BS; and Matthew M. Davis, MD, MAPP

ABSTRACT

Objectives: With insurance enrollment greater than expected under the Affordable Care Act, uncertainty about the availability and timeliness of healthcare services for newly insured individuals has increased. We examined primary care appointment availability and wait times for new Medicaid and privately insured patients before and after Medicaid expansion in Michigan.

Study Design: Simulated patient (“secret shopper”) study.

Methods: Extended follow-up of a previously reported simulated patient (“secret shopper”) study assessing accessibility of routine new patient appointments in a stratified proportionate random sample of Michigan primary care practices before versus 4, 8, and 12 months after Medicaid expansion.

Results: During the study period, approximately 600,000 adults enrolled in Michigan’s Medicaid expansion program, representing 57% of the previously uninsured nonelderly adult population. One year after expansion, we found that appointment availability remained increased by 6 percentage points for new Medicaid patients (95% CI, 1.6-11.1) and decreased by 2 percentage points for new privately insured patients (95% CI, –0.5 to –3.8). Over the same period, the proportion of appointments scheduled with nonphysician providers (nurse practitioners or physician assistants) increased from 8% to 21% of Medicaid appointments (95% CI, 5.6-20.2) and from 11% to 19% of private-insurance appointments (95% CI, 1.3-14.1). Median wait times remained stable for new Medicaid patients and increased slightly for new privately insured patients, both remaining within 2 weeks.

Conclusions: During the first year following Medicaid expansion in Michigan, appointment availability for new Medicaid patients increased, a greater proportion of appointments could be obtained with nonphysician providers, and wait times remained within 2 weeks.

Am J Manag Care. 2016;22(6):427-431

Take-Away Points
 
During the first year following Medicaid expansion in Michigan: 
  • Appointment availability for new Medicaid patients remained increased, even after expiration of the Affordable Care Act–associated rate bump in Medicaid reimbursement to primary care providers. 
  • A greater proportion of appointments could be obtained with nonphysician providers (nurse practitioners or physician assistants). 
  • Despite the large number of newly insured individuals, median new patient wait times remained within 2 weeks and were similar for Medicaid and privately insured patients.
Access to care depends, in large part, on states’ unique healthcare environments, which have varying population demographics and healthcare workforces. After the 2012 Supreme Court decision made Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) optional, 19 states decided not to expand Medicaid and the remaining 31 states expanded Medicaid in a variety of ways.1 For this reason, ongoing state-level evaluations are critically important to evaluate the consequences of Medicaid expansions in order to inform other states facing similar expansion challenges.

Although most primary care providers were accepting new patients on the eve of ACA-sponsored coverage expansions in 2012 and 2013,2 there was widespread concern that primary care capacity would be insufficient to meet the growing demand for care by newly insured individuals3,4—many of whom are establishing care with a primary care provider for the first time. Higher than expected enrollment in Medicaid5-7 has heightened this concern.8

In order to provide timely estimates of changes in primary care access in the era of healthcare reform, we previously reported preliminary results from a simulated patient study examining primary care appointment availability and wait times for new patients with Medicaid and private insurance before and 4 months after implementation of Medicaid expansion in Michigan on April 1, 2014.9 We found an initial increase in primary care appointment availability for new Medicaid patients with no lengthening of wait times 4 months after expansion.

Since then, the number of enrollees in the state’s Medicaid expansion program—or Healthy Michigan Plan—has nearly doubled, from approximately 350,000 to 600,000.10 Each new Healthy Michigan Plan beneficiary is required to obtain a primary care appointment within 90 days of enrollment. With the expanding number of enrollees and the mandate to schedule early appointments, there was increasing uncertainty as to whether the initial increase in primary care appointment access for new Medicaid patients would endure following continued coverage expansion. To monitor ongoing trends in appointment accessibility, we now present longitudinal data through the first 12 months after Medicaid expansion, regarding primary care appointment availability and wait times for new patients with Medicaid and private insurance.

METHODS
We conducted a simulated patient (“secret shopper”) study, in which trained research staff called a stratified proportionate random sample of primary care practices (N = 295) to request a new patient appointment before (March 17-31, 2014) and, serially, after Medicaid expansion implementation in Michigan on April 1, 2014 (July 21-August 11, 2014; November 17-December 12, 2014; and March 20-April 15, 2015). Details of our study methodology, including sampling, practice classification, and simulated patient call protocols, were reported in our previous article.9 Briefly, we conducted a telephone survey of Michigan primary care clinics caring for adult patients February 24 to March 7, 2014, to confirm study eligibility and acceptance of new Medicaid patients, as well as other practice characteristics. Given the study’s focus on assessing appointment accessibility for new Medicaid patients, we placed simulated patient calls to clinics that accepted Medicaid in order to assess appointment wait times.

Trained research assistants called primary care clinics as simulated prospective patients with Medicaid or private coverage every 4 months up to 1 year after Medicaid expansion (see eAppendix A for a timeline of study calls and enrollment [eAppendices available at www.ajmc.com]). Callers requested the next available routine new-patient appointment for a patient with well-controlled hypertension. Calls with each insurance scenario were separated by at least 1 week and appointments were canceled at the end of each call. The University of Michigan Institutional Review Board considered the study “not regulated,” as we did not collect information about individual patients or clinic staff.

Our main outcome was availability of appointments to simulated patients, which we defined as a specific appointment date and time offered during the call. For clinics that accepted Medicaid and offered appointments, we calculated wait times as the difference in calendar days between the call date and appointment date. We also noted whether the appointment was made with a physician or nonphysician provider (eg, nurse practitioner, physician assistant).

We compared changes in appointment availability across the same clinics between pre- and postexpansion periods using logistic regression with time indicators. To compare changes in the skewed distribution of wait times over time and between Medicaid and private insurance, we conducted paired testing with the Wilcoxon signed rank-sum test. In sensitivity analyses, we used linear regression with time indicators after log-transforming the wait time variable, but results did not differ. Because our analyses were based on clinic-level longitudinal data, each clinic could contribute multiple observations to each regression analysis over the 4 waves of data collection. We therefore clustered the residual structure at the clinic level to obtain robust standard errors.11,12

To assess differences across varying categories of clinics (eg, urban vs rural practices) at a given time period, we used χ2 testing for appointment availability and the Wilcoxon rank sum test for wait time differences. We considered a 2-sided P <.05 statistically significant. All analyses were performed using Stata version 13 (StataCorp, College Station, Texas).

RESULTS
Full details of clinic characteristics have been published previously.9 We found in the current study that approximately half of the 295 study clinics were small practices with 1 to 2 providers (eAppendix B) and that 42% of clinics employed nonphysician providers, such as nurse practitioners or physician assistants. Although only 9% were traditionally defined as safety net clinics, 74% had established patients with Medicaid coverage. Clinics were located mostly in urban locations. During the study period, approximately 600,000 individuals enrolled in the state’s Medicaid expansion program10 and 340,000 enrolled in Marketplace plans,13 together representing approximately 10% of the state’s total population and 90% of the previously uninsured nonelderly adult population (eAppendix A).

Availability of Appointments

The proportion of clinics with appointments available to new Medicaid patients increased from 49% before expansion to 55% by 12 months after expansion (+6 percentage points; 95% CI, 1.6-11.1) (Table 1). Appointment availability for new privately insured patients decreased from 88% of clinics to 86% by 12 months after expansion (–2 percentage points; 95% CI, –0.5 to –3.8). Changes in appointment availability for both Medicaid and privately insured groups at 12 months post expansion remained stable compared with the 4-month postexpansion findings.

We also examined the proportion of appointments scheduled with nonphysician providers versus physicians, and found that there was an increasing proportion of appointments scheduled with nonphysician providers over the study period (Table 2). For Medicaid appointments, 8% were scheduled with nonphysician providers before expansion, and this increased to 21% by 12 months post expansion (+13 percentage points; 95% CI, 5.6-20.2). For private insurance appointments, 11% were scheduled with nonphysician providers before expansion, and this increased to 19% by 12 months post expansion (+8 percentage points; 95% CI, 1.3-14.1).

Wait Times

In clinics that accepted patients with Medicaid, median wait times for new Medicaid patients remained stable over the 12-month period (Table 3). In these same clinics, median wait times for new privately insured patients increased slightly by 12 months post expansion, from 7 to 10 days (P = .02). However, there was no significant difference between wait times for new Medicaid and new privately insured patients throughout the study period. Furthermore, median new patient wait times remained within 2 weeks, with more than 95% falling within the 90-day requirement of the Healthy Michigan law.

Variation by Practice Characteristics

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