Medicaid Expansion Doubled Access to Primary Care and Increased Attention to Health Risks in Low-Income Michiganders

Less reliance on emergency care, more discussions about healthy behaviors and use of preventive care seen in survey of low-income enrollees in the Healthy Michigan Plan.

3:40 PM

Author | Kara Gavin

state of Michigan with apples drawings

When the state of Michigan expanded its Medicaid program to provide health coverage to more low-income residents, its leaders built special features into the plan, different from most states. They wanted to encourage enrollees to understand their individual health risks, and incentivize them to prevent future health problems, or find them early.

According to two new studies, that effort has paid off.

The percentage of enrollees in the Healthy Michigan Plan who saw a primary care doctor in a given year doubled, and many of those visits included a discussion of healthy behaviors that could improve their long-term health, the studies show.

Half of the enrollees said they completed the Healthy Michigan Plan "health risk assessment" questionnaire and went over it with a physician. A majority of enrollees got preventive care, such as cancer screenings or dental visits.

It appears that the special financial incentives that the state built into the program played only a partial role in completion of the health risk assessment. In fact, many of the enrollees didn't even know they could get a cost-sharing discount by filling it out and discussing it with their doctor. 

The new findings appear in two papers published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine by several members of the Healthy Michigan Plan evaluation team from the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

A focus on primary care and prevention

The studies are based on results from a survey of more than 4,000 Michiganders, out of the more than 1 million who have gotten coverage from the Healthy Michigan Plan since its launch in 2014.

The program currently covers more than 642,000 state residents who make less than about $16,000 a year for an individual, or $33,000 for a family of four. Among those surveyed, over two-thirds are working, going to school, retired or unable to work.

"Customizing Medicaid expansion to emphasize primary care and prevention took extra effort, but appears successful, at least according to the snapshot of enrollees that these data represent," says Susan Dorr Goold, M.D., MHSA, M.A., the lead author of one of the two papers and a professor of internal medicine at U-M.

SEE ALSO: Benefits for Mind, Body and Work Ability Seen in Medicaid Expansion

Former IHPI National Clinician Scholar Taylor Kelley, M.D., M.P.H., M.Sc., now at the University of Utah, notes, "While too early to tell whether the program will lead to sustained behavior change, it is clear more conversations are happening between doctors and patients about lifestyle change, and patients have been surprisingly eager to commit to healthy behaviors." Kelley is lead author of the other of the two papers.

"The role of primary care providers, and their teams, in helping low-income and working-poor people understand what health risks they face, and encouraging them to modify the risk factors they can change, is crucial," says Renuka Tipirneni, M.D., M.Sc., senior author of the paper led by Kelley and an assistant professor of internal medicine.

Goold, Kelley, Tipirneni and many of their co-authors have been part of the IHPI team that is carrying out the official evaluation of the Healthy Michigan Plan for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The team surveyed 4,090 HMP participants between the ages of 19 and 64 years who'd been enrolled in the program for more than a year, using their preferred language of English, Spanish, or Arabic. The survey was carried out in 2016, and claims data were also used to examine enrollees' use of health care services.

SEE ALSO: Expanding Medicaid Means Health Problems Get Found and Health Improves, Study Finds

Some of their key findings:

Insurance status:

  • Nearly 58% of those surveyed hadn't had health insurance in the year before they enrolled in HMP, and half of the rest said they had previously had insurance through Medicaid or another state program.
  • One-third said they hadn't gotten care they needed in the 12 months before enrolling, mostly because of cost or a lack of insurance coverage. Nearly two-thirds of this subgroup said they'd gone without dental care they needed.
  • Nearly 90% said that having HMP coverage had reduced their stress and worry; those who'd been uninsured before they obtained HMP coverage were even more likely to say so.

Where they received care:

  • One in five enrollees said they hadn't had a primary care visit in the five years before their HMP coverage began, and only two-fifths had seen a primary care provider in the year before they enrolled in HMP coverage.
  • Nearly 90% of enrollees had seen a primary care provider since enrolling, and nearly 95% of those enrollees said they'd discussed wellness and prevention as part of a primary care visit.
  • Ninety-two percent said that they now had a regular source of medical care, compared to under 73% before they were covered by HMP.
  • The percentage who said that their regular source of care was an emergency room or urgent care center dropped from 25.3% before enrollment, to 7% after they enrolled in HMP.
  • Fifteen percent said that despite their HMP coverage, they'd still gone without needed care in the past 12 months, for varied reasons including costs and their health plan's coverage provisions.
  • Fifty-nine percent said their HMP coverage had helped them get access to prescription drugs, and 46% said it had helped them get access to dental care.

Health risk assessments

  • Half of enrollees said they had completed a health risk assessment, or HRA.
  • Nearly four-fifths of those who completed an HRA chose to work on a healthy behavior, and the percentage was even higher among those with chronic illnesses. More than half of them chose to work on eating healthier and/or exercising more.
  • Nearly a fifth of those who chose a healthy behavior to work on said they'd try to stop smoking; that percentage was even higher among those with a mental health condition or substance use disorder.
  • Only 31.5% of enrollees said that completing the HRA hadn't been helpful because they already knew what they needed to do to improve their health.
  • Nearly half of those who completed an HRA said they did it because their primary care provider had encouraged it. Only 2.5% said that the promise of a monetary reward spurred them to complete an HRA, and only 28% said they'd known that they could get a reduction in the amount they'd have to pay.  
Customizing Medicaid expansion to emphasize primary care and prevention took extra effort, but appears successful.
Susan Dorr Goold, M.D., MHSA, M.A.

Preventive health care

  • More than 70% of the women over 50 had received a breast cancer screening in the past 12 months under HMP, and more than half of adults over 50 had received colon cancer screening. Cancer screenings, and other proven preventive screenings and vaccinations, are covered by the Healthy Michigan Plan with no co-pay.
  • Sixty percent of enrollees had seen a dentist in the past year through their HMP coverage.
  • More than 10% of enrollees who reported using tobacco had gotten a prescription for an FDA-approved product to help them break their nicotine habit.
  • Those who knew that preventive health services were available at no cost to them were more likely to receive them. But knowledge that completing an HRA could reduce their fees didn't increase use.

In addition to Goold and Tipirneni, the authors of the papers include Jeffrey Kullgren, M.D., M.S., M.P.H., the senior author of the paper led by Goold and an assistant professor of internal medicine.

Other authors of one or both papers include IHPI director John Z. Ayanian, M.D., M.P.P., and U-M faculty and staff Tammy Chang, M.D., M.P.H., M.S., Minal Patel, Ph.D., M.P.H, Matthias A. Kirch, M.S., Corey Bryant, M.S., Erin Beathard, M.P.H., M.S.W., Erica Solway, Ph.D., M.P.H., M.S.W., Sunghee Lee, Ph.D., M.S., Sarah J. Clark, M.P.H., , as well as former U-M Preventive Medicine resident Eunice Zhang, M.D., M.P.H., former HMP evaluation team member Jennifer Skillicorn, Dr.P.H., M.P.H. and community consultant Zachary Rowe, BBA, the executive director of Friends of Parkside, a non-profit community-based organization in Detroit.

For more about these and other results from the IHPI evaluation of the Healthy Michigan Plan, visit the Healthy Michigan Plan Evaluation webpage.

Learn more about the Healthy Michigan Plan.

Papers cited:  

Kelley et al. "Engagement with Health Risk Assessments and Commitment to Healthy Behaviors in Michigan's Medicaid Expansion Program," Journal of General Internal Medicine. DOI: 10.1007/s11606-019-05562-x

Goold et al. "Primary Care, Health Promotion, and Disease Prevention with Michigan Medicaid Expansion," Journal of General Internal Medicine. DOI: 10.1007/s11606-019-05370-3

More Articles About: Industry DX Health Care Delivery, Policy and Economics Cancer Screening Nutrition Health Screenings Community Health
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of healthcare news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]


Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Featured News & Stories weight scale black white in exam room close up
Health Lab
Adding obesity experts to primary care clinics improves patients’ weight loss outcomes
A weight navigation program for primary care patients with obesity led to more use of proven weight management strategies and more weight loss
Mott Poll teens and caffeine
Health Lab
Does your teen consume too much caffeine?
A quarter of parents report that caffeine is basically part of their teen’s daily life, according to a national poll.
pills floating blue pink dark background physician in middle looking at chart white coat scrubs
Health Lab
Better medical record-keeping needed to fight antibiotic overuse, studies suggest
Efforts to reduce overuse of antibiotics may be hampered by incomplete medical records that don’t show the full reasons for prescriptions.
surgery gloves passing tool blue and yellow
Health Lab
A universal heparin reversal drug is shown effective in mice
The newest version of the heparin reversal drug, described in a recent issue of Advanced Healthcare Materials, adjusted the number of protons bound to it, making the molecule less positive so it would preferentially bind to the highly negative heparin, resulting in a much safer drug.
zoom screens with 7 different backgrounds and doctor silhouettes outlined in each
Health Lab
The doctor is in…. but what’s behind them?
A study reveals that what a doctor has behind them during a telehealth visit can make a difference in how the patient feels about them and their care.
doctor in white coat with dark blue scrubs touching hand of patient in grey sweater and baseball cap in exam room
Health Lab
Neuropathy common, and mostly undiagnosed, among patients in this Michigan city
A research team, led by Michigan Medicine and in partnership with Hurley Medical Center, finds that nearly three-quarters of patients at a clinic in Flint, Mich., a community that is predominantly Black and socioeconomically disadvantaged, had neuropathy — of which 75% was undiagnosed.