Supporters of President Obama’s health care law had predicted that expanding insurance coverage for the poor would reduce costly emergency room visits because people would go to primary care doctors instead. But a rigorous new experiment in Oregon has raised questions about that assumption, finding that newly insured people actually went to the emergency room a good deal more often.
The study, published in the journal Science, compared thousands of low-income people in the Portland area who were randomly selected in a 2008 lottery to get Medicaid coverage with people who entered the lottery but remained uninsured. Those who gained coverage made 40 percent more visits to the emergency room than their uninsured counterparts during their first 18 months with insurance.
The pattern was so strong that it held true across most demographic groups, times of day and types of visits, including those for conditions that were treatable in primary care settings.
The findings cast doubt on the hope that expanded insurance coverage will help rein in emergency room costs just as more than two million people are gaining coverage under the Affordable Care Act. And they go against one of the central arguments of the law’s supporters, that extending insurance to large numbers of Americans would reduce emergency room use, and eventually save money.
In remarks in New Mexico in 2009, Mr. Obama said: “I think that it’s very important that we provide coverage for all people because if everybody’s got coverage, then they’re not going to the emergency room for treatment.”
The study suggests that the surge in the numbers of insured people may put even greater pressure on emergency rooms, at least in the short term. Nearly 25 million uninsured Americans could gain coverage under the law, about half of them through Medicaid. The first policies took effect on Wednesday.