uninsured patients are making greater use of emergency departments for nonurgent care.

Access to Primary Care

The adequacy of hospital capacity cannot be assessed without considering the system inefficiencies that characterize current insurance and care delivery arrangements. These include the demands placed on hospital emergency and outpatient departments by the uninsured and those without access to a primary care provider. The unique characteristic of primary care is the role it plays as a regular or usual source of care for patients and their families. Good primary care assures continuity for the patient across levels of care, comprehensiveness of services according to the level of health or illness, and better coordination of these services over time (Starfield, 1998).

Defining the right level of immediate and standby capacity for emergency and inpatient care depends in part on the adequacy and effectiveness of general outpatient and primary care. For example, chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes often can be managed effectively on an outpatient basis, but if the conditions are poorly managed by patients or their health care providers, emergency or inpatient care may be necessary. Billings and colleagues (1993) demonstrated strong links between hospital admission rates for such conditions and the socioeconomic and insurance status of the population in an area. For example, admission rates for asthma were 6.4 percent higher in low-income areas than in higher-income areas, with more than 70 percent of the variation explained by household income (Billings et al., 1993). Differences in disease prevalence accounted for only a small portion of the differences in hospitalization rates among low- and high-income areas.

Although Billings and colleagues did not draw conclusions about the causal pathways leading to these higher admission rates, it is likely that the contributing factors include those discussed in this chapter, such as a lack of insurance or a regular source of care and the assignment of Medicaid populations to lower-cost health plans. A follow-up analysis found the situation to be growing worse for low-income populations, as economic pressures, including lower reimbursements rates, higher practice costs, and limitations on payment for diagnostic tests, squeeze providers who have historically delivered care to academic health centers’ low-income populations (Billings et al., 1996). Bindman and colleagues (1995) similarly concluded that at the community level, “there is a strong positive association between health care access and preventable hospitalization rates, suggesting that these rates can serve as an indication of access to care.” It would be a costly mistake to create additional emergency and inpatient capacity before decompressing demand by improving access to primary care services. Good

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