It is no secret that patients with Medicaid (both adults and children) have difficulty making appointments for both elective and trauma-related orthopaedic care. They also travel further for care compared to privately insured patients. Conversely, Medicaid reimbursement rates for orthopaedic surgeries are substantially lower than those from Medicare and commercial insurers. Patients with Medicaid also tend to be more socially complex and have higher no-show rates for clinic appointments and surgery.
Consequently, as recently as 2011, only 40% of US orthopaedic surgeons were accepting new patients with Medicaid. This “bottleneck” effect may only get worse as reimbursement plans shift towards “pay-for-performance” and value-based payment, prompting surgeons and hospitals to become increasingly concerned about optimizing patient selection.
In a 2012 JBJS study, my colleague Ryan Calfee and co-authors demonstrated that patients with Medicaid were traveling to our institution (Washington University/Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis) not only for complex cases, but also for simple and moderate-complexity hand surgery issues. These patients were bypassing hand surgeons closer to home partly because the local hand surgeons did not accept Medicaid.
With those findings in mind, we decided to more closely examine Medicaid care delivery in our region. Ideally, the insurance mix of the area surrounding a hospital should match the payer mix of the hospital. Most of us who currently work or have trained in large academic centers know that this is often not the case. Anecdotally, there are hospitals in every region that “cherry pick” the best-insured patients and transfer out the financially less desirable cases to a nearby teaching hospital. In our paper, published in the August 21, 2019 issue of JBJS, the concept of “Medicaid share ratio” is intended to reflect whether the hospital payer mix matches the insurance mix of the community. A value of 1 indicates a perfect balance.
We examined the Medicaid share ratios of the 22 hospitals in our region to see if the hospitals were “pulling their weight.” The Medicaid share ratios for elective orthopaedic care such as total joint arthroplasty ranged from 0.05 to 4.73, demonstrating massive imbalances on both ends of the spectrum. We also found very high variability in the delivery of elective orthopaedic care (coefficient of variation = 93, where values >60 are considered “very high”) and moderate variability in trauma care (coefficient of variation = 34).
Our findings were sobering, but not unexpected. The fact that some hospitals bear the brunt of care for the underinsured and uninsured is not new, and the federal government currently includes Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments to offset these losses. However, DSH payments are scheduled to decrease substantially in coming years as part of the original intent of the Affordable Care Act. If the continuing (and possibly worsening) burden of undercompensated care becomes financially suffocating to teaching and safety-net hospitals, they may seek to curb those losses in ways that could further limit access to underinsured patients and/or drive costs up for patients with other types of insurance.
At the surgeon level, we should address surgeon hesitation to accept Medicaid patients through engagement with specialty societies and policy reform. Our research team is currently working to learn more about what surgeons and patients think are potential solutions for these disparities in our region. As surgeons and researchers, we must work toward a more complete understanding of what drives these disparities in orthopaedic care. Otherwise, it will be impossible to figure out how to fix them.
Christopher Dy, MD, MPH is a hand and peripheral nerve surgeon, an assistant professor at Washington University Orthopaedics, and a member of the JBJS Social Media Advisory Board.