Objective. To examine the extent to which health insurance coverage and available safety net resources reduced racial and ethnic disparities in access to care.
Data Sources. Nationally representative sample of 11,692 African American, 10,325 Hispanic, and 74,397 white persons. Nonelderly persons with public or private health insurance and those who were uninsured.
Study Design. Two cross-sectional surveys of households conducted during 1996–1997 and 1998–1999.
Data Collection. Commonly used measures of access to and utilization of medical care were constructed for individuals. These measures include the following: (1) percent reporting unmet medical needs, (2) percent without a regular health care provider, and (3) no visit with a physician in the past year.
Findings. More than 6.5 percent of Hispanic and African Americans reported having unmet medical needs compared to less than 5.6 percent of white Americans. Hispanics were least likely to see the same doctor at their usual source of care (59 percent), compared to African Americans (66 percent) and whites (75 percent). Similarly, Hispanics were less likely than either African Americans or whites to have seen a doctor in the last year (65 percent compared to 76 percent or 79 percent). For Hispanics, more than 80 percent of the difference from whites was due to differences in measured characteristics (e.g., insurance coverage, income, and available safety net services). Differences in measured characteristics between African Americans and whites explained less than 80 percent of the access disparities.
Conclusion. Lack of health insurance was the single most important factor in white–Hispanic differences for all three measures and for two of the white–African American differences. Income differences were the second most important factor, with one exception. Community characteristics generally were much less important, with one exception. The positive effects of insurance coverage in reducing disparities outweigh benefits of increasing physician charity care or access to emergency rooms.