The effects of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 in each state depend on various factors, such as the number of uninsured individuals in the state and the governor’s receptiveness to the law’s provisions. In this post, I focus on the benefits of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in Colorado, primarily from the perspective of my job as an emergency department (ED) physician, in support of my argument that the ACA must not be repealed–instead, I recommend that it be strengthened. In a prior post, I summarized estimates of the impact of the GOP’s proposed ACA repeal/replace plans on coverage and consumer costs.
Effects of the ACA on Uninsurance Rate in Colorado
In Colorado, the number of uninsured individuals declined by 25.5%, from 729,000 individuals in 2013, or 14.1% of the population, to 543,000 individuals in 2014, or 10.3% of the population.
Colorado was one of 32 states (including DC) that had expanded Medicaid as of 1/1/2017. In fiscal year 2014, annual Medicaid enrollment in Colorado increased by 26.1%. Average monthly enrollment increased 59% from 783,420 to 1,244,031 pre-ACA to post-ACA.
Drivers of Healthcare Cost and Utilization from the Emergency Department Perspective
Healthcare access and coverage–so improved under the ACA–drive a lot of what happens in the emergency department (ED). We can think of this in 3 categories:
- How the ACA has impacted who comes into the ED (and the hospital).
- How the ACA has decreased the amount of services we ED physicians provide to patients while they are in the ED (and hence the cost).
- How the ACA has impacted what happens at the end of the ED visit (should I stay or should I go?)
How the ACA has impacted who comes into the ED (and the hospital)
In Colorado, the number of ED visits has declined with ACA implementation. This varies state, by state, but in Colorado, we have seen a clear decline in the rate of ED visits per insured person–a trend driven by the expansion of Medicaid insurance.
The trend is also apparent when we restrict the analysis to children only:
(This and other data are available from the Colorado All Payer Claims Data summary tools, at Colorado Medical Price Compare, available at https://www.comedprice.org/#/reports )
The decline in population rate of ED visits among Medicaid patients did not result in a net decline in the number of ED visits–in 2014, the overall number of Medicaid ED visits went up, largely because more patients were on Medicaid. But, among those on Medicaid, during the ACA rollout, population rates of ED visits went down. As expected, the number of un-insured ED visits declined in Colorado as the number of Medicaid visits rose.
Increasingly, patients are more likely to visit their medical home (primary care provider) because they are more likely to have one, thanks to the ACA. When we do see patients in the ED, patients are more likely to have had started treatment before coming in (saw or called their medical home). Diverting more ED visits to the medical home is good for many reasons, not the least of which is cost.
The decline in ED visits is also a Colorado Medicaid performance metric for Colorado’s seven Regional Care Collaborative Organizations (RCCOs)–RCCOs received payment incentives if they achieved a 3% decline in ED visits per patient in their RCCO. Although most RCCOs did not achieve this decline, all achieved some decline in 2016:
How the ACA has decreased the amount of services we ED physicians provide to patients while they are in the ED (and hence the cost)
If we know a patient in the ED has no coverage (no financial access to primary care), the ED visit costs more for many reasons, including:
- The patient is more likely to have tests done in the ED because there is no primary care provider to order tests and follow test results
- The patient is more likely to have subspecialty consultations instead of office follow-up visits with primary care providers
- The patient is more likely to get more conservative (more aggressive) treatment in the ED, rather than waiting a day or two to see if the patient really needs more aggressive testing/treatment, because there is no medical home to provide that testing/treatment in a day or two.
How the ACA has impacted what happens at the end of the ED visit
If we, as ED physicians, know a patient has financial access to primary care, we are more likely to discharge them home rather than admit them to the hospital. This is reflected in the decrease in hospital admissions relative to the rate of ED visits among all ages:
The same trend is seen among children only:
As an example of how this works, one of the most common reasons young children are admitted to the hospital in Colorado (and nationwide) is for a common lower respiratory viral syndrome called bronchiolitis. Several of my colleagues at Children’s Hospital of Colorado have performed the research (here and here) to show the circumstances under which a child is safely discharged home on home-oxygen therapy. This is cost-saving in that hospitalizations are expensive, and also result in many missed days of work for parents. The criteria for discharge to home (rather than hospital admission) in our hospital’s evidence based guideline include access (within 24 hours) to a medical home for a follow up check:
Before the ACA permitted so many more access to a medical home, patients with common conditions like bronchiolitis were more likely to be admitted. Discharging more to home means fewer inpatient stays:
Thus, for Colorado consumers, the ACA has helped improve coverage, thereby reducing the per-insured rate of ED visits, the per-ED-visit rate of inpatient admissions and the overall rate of inpatient admissions, both for adults and children. It has primarily done this by allowing more Coloradans to access care where they should be able to: in a medical home. By reducing these costly forms of healthcare utilization, EDs are less crowded for those who truly need ED care. By reducing the proportion of uninsured visitors to the ED and hospital, the ACA has also decreased the amount of uncompensated care, permitting more hospitals to remain in business.