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Study Highlights Importance of Improved Medicaid Program

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On June 17, Dr. Karin Rhodes and her colleague Joanna Bisgaier of the University of Pennsylvania released a report on access to sub-specialty doctors by children covered by Medicaid in Cook County, Illinois. The authors also published an article about the study underlying the report in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Rhodes undertook and was paid for the study pursuant to a contract with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, the state's Medicaid agency. The study was part of the department's compliance with a 2005 consent decree in the case of Memisovski v. Maram, which followed a 2004 federal district court ruling that the state was not in compliance with Medicaid Act requirements that children receive recommended levels of preventive care and treatment of diagnosed conditions, and that they receive care at least to the same extent as children covered by other forms of insurance.

Following the consent decree in Memisovski, Illiniois has undertaken very significant reforms of the primary and preventive care system for children on Medicaid. It improved the rates paid for office visits to primary care doctors and dentists, and it held the processing time for those services to a reasonable level, even during the recession (when all other state bills were being delayed for many months). It launched a statewide "medical home" initiative designed to match children up with primary care doctors, which has had considerable success. Other strategies to improve primary care have been launched, and the overall effort continues.

The consent decree was less specific with respect to access to specialty care to diagnose conditions or especially to treat diagnosed conditions. It provided that the department undertake a study to examine the extent of access problems, and it left the remedies for any such problems to be determined after the study was completed. However, Illinois was not idle on this front. It enacted a round of rate increases for some pediatric specialists, and it included children in a disease management program for people with chronic illness.

The study released last Friday, however, shows that there is a very serious problem with access to specialty care for children covered by Medicaid and other public insurance, particularly as compared to children covered by other forms of insurance (mostly employer-based private insurance). Using a "secret shopper" methodology, the investigators posed as parents seeking care for a child, saying in one call that the child's coverage was Medicaid and in the next call that the same child's coverage was Blue Cross Blue Shield PPO (which dominates the market in Illinois). The Medicaid-covered children had very significant disadvantages for almost all sub-specialties in both the ability to get an appointment and in the waiting time for the appointment if it was granted. The one exception was psychiatric care, where there was a severe access problem regardless of type of insurance.

At the time of the original court order and consent decree, Illinois authorities were dealing with an inherited problem resulting from decades of underfunding and neglect of access issues in the state's Medicaid program. They have been working to comply with the decree and improve the program, in spite of the grinding recession-driven budget crisis in the state. Representatives of the children in the case look forward to working in cooperation with state authorities to find and implement solutions to these newly documented problems with specialty access.

Meanwhile, the study has resulted in media coverage, and some commentators are attempting to use it to bolster current attempts by conservatives to cut spending on Medicaid or relieve states of the duty to comply with Medicaid's federal rules guaranteeing children access to all needed care. Medicaid is not "broke"; it is underfunded. The underfunding causes it to fall short on its ability to deliver the kinds of quality health care that, over the long term, would save money by supporting healthier people. And Medicaid is not "broken"; it is falling short of its full potential. It provides plenty of essential health care to millions of children, working adults, people with disabilities and seniors. Cutting them off of Medicaid would hurt them immeasurably. And starving the program of funds would only exacerbate the problems with access and the efforts to expand the health care workforce needed to provide adequate care to all beneficiaries. Just because there are flaws in the program does not mean the program must end for millions of beneficiaries. If we scrapped every governmental program that has flaws that need fixing, where would the armed forces, roads, or schools be? Medicaid is essential, but it can and should improve, especially on this issue of access to needed care.