Article Abstract

The impact of insurance coverage on access to orthopedic spine care

Authors: Dale N. Segal, Zachary J. Grabel, Weilong J. Shi, Michael B. Gottschalk, Scott D. Boden


Background: Poor socioeconomic status is a significant barrier to health care in the United States. Policy changes have attempted to expand insurance coverage in hopes of improving access to care. These policies have prioritized primary care and preventative medicine. Access to specialty care, particularly orthopaedic care, has not received the same attention. This study examines access to orthopaedic spine surgery practices based on type of insurance coverage.
Methods: Five offices with board certified orthopaedic spine surgeons were randomly contacted from each state. A fictitious patient provided a scripted surgical indication for their appointment. They provided their insurance coverage as either Medicare, Medicaid or a private plan. Timing of the provided appointment was recorded. Any appointment was subsequently canceled so as not to interfere with the practice’s scheduling.
Results: Two hundred and thirty-four orthopaedic spine surgery practices were contacted between January and June of 2016. Eighty-six percent of practices accepted a private plan without primary care provider (PCP) referral. Greater than 99% of practices accepted privately insured patients if a PCP referral were included. Those with Medicare were able to obtain an appointment from 81% of practices. No practices contacted in this study offered an appointment to the caller with Medicaid.
Conclusions: Policy changes have expanded insurance coverage in order to improve access to care for patients of low socioeconomic status. There was a significant barrier to accessing spine care for patients with Medicaid insurance. Access was greatest for those with private insurance followed by those with Medicare. This study demonstrates that there is a significant disparity in ability to access spine specialists despite having insurance coverage.