Expanded Medicaid may translate into fewer unpaid hospital bills

(Reuters Health) - U.S. hospitals may be getting paid for more of the care they actually provide thanks to the Affordable Care Act, if research from Michigan reflects the situation around the country.

The federal government forms for applying for health coverage are seen at a rally held by supporters of the Affordable Care Act, widely referred to as "Obamacare", outside the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center in Jackson, Mississippi October 4, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

While the study didn’t look directly at hospital finances, researchers found that the proportion of uninsured adults discharged from Michigan hospitals fell after public insurance options expanded in 2014.

“What we found is that the overwhelming majority of hospitals experienced a decrease in the proportion of uninsured patients and an increase in Medicaid covered patients,” said lead author Dr. Matthew Davis, deputy director of Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor.

Under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, some U.S. states - including Michigan - expanded Medicaid, which is the joint federal and state insurance program for the poor.

Previous studies showed many people who gained health insurance through the law were previously uninsured, Davis told Reuters Health.

For the new study, he and his colleagues analyzed data on young adults discharged from 130 Michigan hospitals before and after Medicaid became more broadly available in 2014.

About 6 percent of young adults discharged at those hospitals between April and December before the Medicaid expansion were uninsured, compared to about 2 percent during those months in 2014, the authors reported in JAMA.

The proportion of discharged young adults on Medicaid rose from 23 percent in 2012 and 24 percent in 2013 to 30 percent in 2014.

There was a small decline in the number of people discharged with private or other insurance, they found.

The researchers were surprised at how uniform the impact of Medicaid expansion seemed to be in hospitals across Michigan, Davis said.

“This impact wasn’t limited to urban areas or population centers, or safety net hospitals,” he said.

According to Davis, past research shows that decreases in the number of uninsured patients are tied to decreases in healthcare that goes unpaid for.

“As we have more and more years of the Affordable Care Act that have provided expanded coverage for millions of Americans, it’s going to be important to understand how that coverage translates into positive health,” he said.

“Coverage through insurance plans and programs like Medicaid is most (needed) when our health is at its worst and we need to be hospitalized,” he said. “Yet, that coverage is also essential in times when our health is better and we need to be focused on preventing the next illness rather than just responding to it.”

SOURCE: JAMA, online June 21, 2016.