Context. States have been reluctant to enroll children with special health care needs (SHCN) into capitated managed care, because the financial incentives inherent in such plans may elicit undertreatment, restrict access to specific services and providers, and have adverse effects on quality. Little research has examined how children with SHCN who qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) fare under managed care versus the fee-for-service (FFS) system.

Objective. To examine how enrollment of children with SHCN with SSI into a Medicaid capitated managed care plan differs from regular FFS with respect to unmet needs and access to care in the District of Columbia.

Design, Setting, and Participants. We conducted telephone interviews with a random sample of 1088 caregivers of children with SHCN who resided in the District of Columbia during the summer and fall of 2002.

Main Outcome Measures. 1) Usual source of care; 2) unmet need for the following services during the 6-month period prior to the interview: physician/hospital, mental health, therapy services, dental care, durable medical equipment and supplies, prescription drugs, and home health services; and 3) caregivers' ratings of dimensions of access to services.

Results. The percentage of FFS children who did not receive needed dental care, durable medical equipment/supplies, or prescription drugs was significantly larger than the percentage of children enrolled in the capitated managed care plan. We found no significant differences by plan type in unmet need for physician/hospital care, mental health services, home health service, or therapy services.

The most problematic areas of access seem to be “wait time between making an appointment and the actual visit,” “waiting time in the doctor's office,” “office hours for appointments,” “getting medical advice by phone,” and “getting specialist's care if needed.” For each of these dimensions of access, children in the FFS system experienced significantly more of such access problems, compared with children in Health Services for Children With Special Needs (HSCSN). These 4 dimensions of access cause problems for 18% to 29% of FFS parents but only 13.6% to 22.3% of caregivers with a child in HSCSN. Three other dimensions of access, “convenience of doctor's office,” “getting emergency care if needed,” and “getting hospital care if needed,” also seemed to pose significantly more problems for caregivers with children in FFS plans, compared with those in HSCSN. These dimensions of access were only problematic for 9% to 14% of FFS caregivers and 5.9% to 7.7% of caregivers with children enrolled in HSCSN.

Conclusions. Children in the managed care option have lower levels of unmet need than children in FFS plans. Caregivers of children in FFS plans encountered more difficulties in navigating the health care system, compared with those with children in managed care. We conclude that a combination of factors that characterize the capitated managed care plan are responsible for improving access to care and mitigating the level of unmet need among children with SHCN. These include the comprehensive care plan assessment, ongoing case management, primary care providers' gatekeeping role, and higher physician reimbursement.

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