Lessons for coverage expansion: A Virginia primary care program for the uninsured reduced utilization and cut costs
The Affordable Care Act will expand health insurance coverage for an estimated thirty-two million uninsured Americans. Increased access to care is intended to reduce the unnecessary use of services such as emergency department visits and to achieve substantial cost savings. However, there is little evidence for such claims. To determine how the uninsured might respond once coverage becomes available, we studied uninsured low-income adults enrolled in a community-based primary care program at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. For people continuously enrolled in the program, emergency department visits and inpatient admissions declined, while primary care visits increased during the study period. Inpatient costs fell each year for this group. Over three years of enrollment, average total costs per year per enrollee fell from $8,899 to $4,569—a savings of almost 50 percent. We conclude that previously uninsured people may have fewer emergency department visits and lower costs after receiving coverage but that it may take several years of coverage for substantive health care savings to occur.