Unbiased Analysis of Today's Healthcare Issues

Insurance Status and Access to Urgent Ambulatory Care Follow-up Appointments

Written By: Jason Shafrin - Jan• 29•07

In 2005, approximately 114 million visits were made by Americans to the hospital emergency departments. Of these, more than eighty percent concluded with a discharge and a recommendation for follow-up care. Receiving prompt and adequate post-ER care is imperative for the resolution of many illnesses and temporary disabilities. Is timely care available for these patients?

A study by Asplin, et al. (2005) and a subsequent paper by Neath and Carlin (2006) look at how easy it is to schedule an appointment after an ER visit. To collect the data, clinics were phoned by a graduate students posing as patients just released from a hospital emergency department. Callers had four (made-up) medical conditions: pneumonia, elevated blood pressure, vaginal bleeding in the first trimester, and symptoms of depression. The depression observations were excluded from the study because many primary care physicians do not feel qualified to treat depression.

In each call, the individual claimed to have either: 1) private insurance, 2) Medicaid insurance, 3) no insurance and could not pay, or 4) no insurance but would pay for the visit out-of-pocket. A call was deemed successful if an appointment was made within 7 days and the out-of-pocket payment for the appointment was $20 or less.


Asplin, et al. preform a simple paired comparison in which the same clinics are compared where the only difference between the observations is the unit of insurance the phony patient had. Neath and Carlin directly incorporate other covariates – such as the medical condition, safety-net status of the clinic, city dummy variables, etc. The results are similar in both studies, but the table below gives Neath and Carlin’s findings.

Clinic Type Insurance Status P(Success)
Non-Safety Net Private 68.4%
Non-Safety Net Medicaid 26.3%
Non-Safety Net Uninsured 14.6%
Safety Net Private 41.5%
Safety Net Medicaid 38.5%
Safety Net Uninsured 20.0%

We can see that the “overall success probabilities in Asplin et al. were distressingly low.” One also notices that it is much easier to get an appointment if one has private insurance, but these differences are less severe at “safety net” clinics. Finally, the authors note that the majority of clinics made no attempt to determine the severity of the caller’s condition. Having trained staff answering the phone calls and preforming triage is costly, but is likely worth the cost for patients needing immediate assistance. Put more concisely, Asplin states: “Financial screening is trumping medical triage.”

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  1. […] to timely and adequate health care services.  Jason Shafrin, at Healthcare Economist, has a post up about two studies highlighting the gap between access to emergency services (which is […]