Health Care Provider Deserts May Leave Patients in the Cold

Rural Affordable Care Act insurance consumers may need to travel farther for care
A person in a business suit trying to hitch hike in the middle of the desert
People with ACA health insurance may be more likely to find themselves in “artificial provider deserts,” according to new Penn State research.Image: GettyImages Adventure_Photo

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — People with health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) may have access to fewer health care providers — and may also have to drive further to see them — than people with other plans, according to researchers.

In a new study — published Nov. 4 as part of the November issue of Health Affairs — researchers found that people with ACA health insurance are more likely to find themselves in “artificial provider deserts,” areas where the health care providers near a customer are not covered by their insurance plan, leaving them without access to care even though providers are nearby.

Simon Haeder, assistant professor of public policy, said this is usually not a problem for people living in cities, but it can quickly become an issue for people living in more rural areas.

“If you’re of high socioeconomic status and relatively healthy, traveling long distances for care might be easier or not be a big issue for you,” Haeder said. “But if you’re more economically disadvantaged, and if you potentially don’t speak English or have multiple medical conditions, these challenges with provider networks can have large implications for your health.”

The researchers said that after the ACA was passed, there was a lot of research done on how ACA plans compared to commercial plans, like the ones people access through their employers. Haeder said that while this previous work found that ACA plans covered fewer providers and had lower premiums, researchers did not factor in how far people had to travel to see the health care providers covered by their insurance.

Read the entire press release here.