Primary Care's Effects on Costs in the US Veterans Health Administration, 2016–2019: an Observational Cohort Study
Abstract: Enhancing primary care is a promising strategy for improving the efficiency of health care. Previous studies of primary care’s effects on health expenditures have mostly relied on ecological analyses comparing region-wide expenditures rather than spending for individual patients. To compare overall medical expenditures for individual patients enrolled vs. those not enrolled in primary care in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). Research design included a cohort study with stratification for clinical risk and multivariable linear regression models adjusted for clinical and demographic confounders of expenditures. Participants were, in total, 6,009,973 VHA patients in fiscal year (FY) 2019—5,410,034 enrolled with a primary care provider (PCP) and 599,939 without a PCP—and similar numbers in FYs 2016–2018. Total annual cost per patient to the VHA (including VHA payments to non-VHA providers) stratified by a composite health risk score previously shown to predict VHA expenditures, and multivariate models additionally adjusted for VHA regional differences, patients’ demographic characteristics, non-VHA insurance coverage, and driving time to the nearest VHA facility. Sensitivity analyses explored different modeling strategies and risk adjusters, as well as the inclusion of expenditures by the Medicare program that covers virtually all elderly VHA patients for care not paid for by the VHA. Within each health-risk decile, non-PCP patients had higher outpatient, inpatient, and total costs than those with a PCP. After adjustment for health risk and other factors, lack of a PCP was associated 27.4% higher VHA expenditures, $3274 per patient annually (p < .0001). Sensitivity analyses using different risk adjusters and including Medicare’s spending for VHA patients yielded similar results. In the VHA system, primary care is associated with substantial cost savings. Investments in primary care in other settings might also be cost-effective.
Abstract:Military families face many unique challenges, including frequent separations, demanding work hours, and relocations. The HealthySteps (HS) program may offset these challenges utilizing the expertise of a nonclinical child development specialist called a HS specialist who offers enhanced well-child visits (WCVs), support between visits, and connections to community resources. Our study sought to identify the impact of the military HS pilot program on the timeliness of WCVs, immunizations, routine behavioural and developmental screenings, and referrals to community resources within the first 15 months of life (MOL). We retrospectively reviewed charts of 26 HS-enrolled and 26 randomly selected age-matched non-HS–enrolled children from age 2 to 15 MOL. Demographic variables obtained include child’s gender, child’s birth order, mother’s age, active duty parent’s rank classification, and active duty parent’s gender. We examined five outcomes measures aligning with the American Academy of Pediatrics health supervision, immunization, and screening recommendations and National Committee for Quality Assurance Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set measures: (1) completed six or more WCVs in the first 15 MOL, (2) completed developmental screening at the 9-month WCV, (3) up to date on vaccinations at 15 MOL, (4) completed three or more postpartum depression (PPD) screens in the first 6 MOL, and (5) the total number of documented referrals to community resources within the first 15 MOL. Chi-square analysis and independent t-tests were used to compare the groups. There was no statistical significance (P > .05) between the HS-enrolled and control groups for all five demographic variables. A significantly higher percentage of children in the HS-enrolled group received PPD screening compared to the control group (96% vs. 73.1%, P = .021). The HS-enrolled group had a higher mean number of community resource referrals at 15 MOL of 2.46 (SD = 1.14) vs. the control group with a mean of 0.19 (SD = 0.49). None of the other outcomes showed a statistically significant difference between groups. The results of this study indicate the positive impacts of the military HS program on referrals to community resources and PPD screening, reflecting the HS specialist focus on the family unit. Limitations of this study include the small population size and limited demographic information resulting from the retrospective nature of the study and pilot status of the HS program. Larger prospective studies are needed to clarify the true impact of the HS program in the military health system.