Long Waits Feared with Obamacare Fail to Materialize

March 27, 2015

Many consumers, healthcare providers, and other market observers feared that the increase in health coverage through Obamacare would cause access problems in the form of long waits for appointments and a lack of hospital beds. So far, it appears that this fear has generally not materialized. According to several studies, the volume of traffic in health care practitioners’ offices has not increased substantially since January 2014, the start of new ACA coverage through health insurance marketplaces and Medicaid.

The first study of the issue came from Athenahealth with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and it found that the share of physician office visits that were new patients had only risen from 22.6% to 22.9% from 2013 to 2014. Further, many were concerned that new patients would be sicker than existing patients due to forgone treatment because of a lack of coverage. Yet, the study also found that new patients were not in worse health than existing patients.

With regard to wait times inside physicians’ offices, the average length was down by about a minute, and the drop was even a bit larger for primary care physicians’ offices. The difference could be a result of lower demand or a shift toward urgent care or nurse practitioners. Regardless of the cause, the flood of patients and long waits do not seem to have occurred. A recent Commonwealth Fund report also predicted only modest increases in demand for services if all states expanded their Medicaid programs through the ACA.

Yet, CNBC reports that one counterpoint to all of these findings came from hospitals. A report from Premier, a healthcare improvement company that works with 3,400 hospitals, found that hospital discharges have increased noticeably in the last two years.

These findings demonstrate that the U.S. health care system appears to be absorbing newly insured consumers fairly well overall. However, it is still unclear if all who have coverage are using their coverage optimally by seeking appropriate and timely preventive and primary care. As we continue to build a culture of coverage and expand health literacy, it will be important to monitor consumers’ unmet needs to understand how well our health care system is serving us.