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Medicaid Users Visit Emergency Rooms Frequently

Update Date: Jan 02, 2014 02:02 PM EST

Annual physical check ups and preventative tests are vital in helping people stay healthy. These tests, such as mammograms, can catch health conditions early on, which can increase survival rates. However, the cost of healthcare greatly influences people's decisions to seek medical care. For the uninsured, medical care can be too costly, forcing them to forgo potentially life saving tests. In a new study, researchers found that people who have Medicaid tend to visit the emergency room more often than people with similar conditions who are uninsured.

The researchers used data from Oregon's most recent lottery that gave select uninsured adults Medicaid, which is the government health care plan for low-income individuals. The data included information on around 25,000 patients over the span of 18 months. The lottery insured around 10,000 people out of roughly 90,000 residents that applied. Individual adults that qualify for Medicaid in Oregon must have an income of around $11,490. Families made up of four members that would qualify must have an income of around $23,550.

"When you cover the uninsured, emergency room use goes up by a large magnitude," said Amy Finkelstein, the Ford Professor of Economics at MIT and a principal investigator of the study. Finkelstein worked with Katherine Baicker, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. "In no case were we able to find any subpopulations, or type of conditions, for which Medicaid caused a significant decrease in emergency department use. Although one always needs to be careful generalizing to other settings, these results suggest that other Medicaid expansions are unlikely to decrease emergency room use."

The researchers found that people who were on Medicaid visited emergency rooms 40 percent more often than people who were not insured but had similar health conditions. The study's findings are important since the United States' government is currently implementing the Affordable Care Act, which indicates that Medicaid could be expanding to cover more people. With more insured adults, the potential soar in emergency room visits means that hospitals might need to account for more patients.

"It's not that we're the first to look at the effects of Medicaid empirically, but we are the very first to have a randomized controlled trial of the effect of covering the uninsured with Medicaid," Finkelstein stated.

The study, "Medicaid Increases Emergency Department Use: Evidence from Oregon's Health Insurance Experiment," was published in Science.

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