Rutgers Director for State Health: Higher Medicaid Reimbursements Improved Appointment Availability

January 30, 2015 | Health Care

Pay doctors more to treat Medicaid patients and they’ll treat more Medicaid patients. That’s the conclusion of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Each state decides how it will fund Medicaid, spending money from the federal government and its own coffers. New Jersey doctors are paid only half as much for Medicaid as for Medicare. The Kaiser Family Foundation says that’s the sixth-lowest ratio in the country. In a two-year trial, the federal government paid the full amount needed to pay doctors the same rate for treating both Medicaid and Medicare patients. The trial’s over now and even though more Medicaid patients were treated, New Jersey has decided not to spend state money to continue reimbursing Medicaid at higher levels. Director of the Rutgers Center for State Health Policy Joel Cantor told NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams that he was surprised by a few of the results in the study.

“I was surprised the Medicaid practices increased the number of patients they were willing to see,” said Cantor. “Patients had an easier time getting appointments when the rate bump was in place, when the rates were higher, across the 10 states in the study. Since it was a short-term experiment I didn’t necessarily expect doctors to respond because it’ll go away and it in fact has gone away.”

According to Cantor, the study tested the availability of appointments among doctors who were already on the Medicaid rosters. Cantor said that the study showed that the availability of appointments increased but that it doesn’t mean more doctors were coming in to serve Medicaid patients. He said that those doctors who provide Medicaid care serve more patients.

The state has decided not to put any more funds into Medicaid reimbursement, and Cantor said that the data clearly showed that appointment availability was easier when that higher reimbursement was in place. Out of the 10 states in the study, Cantor pointed out that New Jersey was doing well before the increased reimbursement, with 70 percent of patients able to get appointments. With the higher reimbursements, the rate increased to 80 percent.

Cantor said that the state has choices to make when it comes to allocating funds. He said while this is an important issue, there are lots of other priorities as well.

He also said that the study only looked at the availability of primary care appointments. But Medicaid patients also can have difficulties finding specialists when they’re needed.

“A couple of years ago the state did go ahead and raise the payment rates for behavioral health and mental health providers where access was a particular problem,” said Cantor. “So it does what it can with the funds available. If it had the money, I’m sure certainly the providers and the state and the health plans would be delighted to pay providers more, make more care available.”