Immigrants’ Experience with Publicly Funded Private Health Insurance

The New England Journal of Medicine
August 5, 2010

To the Editor:

On October 31, 2009, Massachusetts involuntarily transferred about 30,000 legal immigrants (mostly “green card” holders) from Commonwealth Care, the state-subsidized insurance program, to a new private insurance plan. CeltiCare, a subsidiary of the out-of-state, for-profit insurer Centene, agreed to take over their care for only $1,300 per person, one third of the state’s previous cost and well below the average cost of adequate care nationally. CeltiCare excluded several hospitals (and their affiliated community health centers) that have traditionally provided safety-net care for immigrants, including Boston Medical Center and Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA), where we work.

We used internal hospital data to determine the characteristics of patients who were transferred to CeltiCare and who had formerly received their primary care at CHA. A total of 1325 patients who had visited a primary care provider at CHA during the past year were moved to CeltiCare. Of these patients, 73% speak a primary language other than English, including Portuguese (24%), Spanish (20%), and Haitian Creole (9%); 19% have hypertension, and 10% have diabetes mellitus. A psychiatric disorder has been diagnosed in at least 9%.

We then evaluated the adequacy of the provider network for these patients. During the second and third months after the switch to CeltiCare, we searched CeltiCare’s Web site for primary care providers within 5 miles of CHA’s ZIP Code. The search returned 326 providers, of whom 217 were nonduplicate adult generalists. Of these providers, 25% could not be reached at the telephone number provided. Of those available by telephone, only 37% were actually accepting new CeltiCare patients, and the average wait for an appointment was 33 days. In all, only 60 providers were accepting new CeltiCare patients, and only 38 could provide service for even one of the three major linguistic minorities.

Given these findings, we believe that patients who were switched from Commonwealth Care to CeltiCare had inadequate access to primary care 3 months into this new program. We fear that such “rationing by inconvenience” shuts patients out of care to the detriment of their health but to the benefit of CeltiCare’s bottom line. Policymakers, in Massachusetts and nationally, should reassess the role of profit-driven insurers in the provision of safety-net care.

Ruth Hertzman-Miller M.D., M.P.H.
Malgorzata Dawiskiba M.D.
Cassie Frank M.D.
Cambridge Health Alliance, Cambridge, MA

NEJM 1989: Health Care Rationing through Inconvenience, by Gerald W. Grumet, M.D.


By Don McCanne, MD

Of all of the industrialized nations, the United States has the greatest amount of health care rationing, and we do that through a unique mechanism. We ration based on ability to pay. As this NEJM report shows, our flawed financing system also results in rationing by inconvenience. This is a unique tool used by the private insurance industry – a tool that serves the interests of the insurers, at the cost of the patients.

The 1989 NEJM article by Grumet describes some of the rationing-by-inconvenience mechanisms used during the managed care revolution. Not much has changed. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act calls for greater regulation of the private insurance industry, but it contains only a paucity of meager safeguards against policies of inconvenience. Therefore, it will be relatively ineffective in protecting us from this unscrupulous form of rationing.

Why do we leave the private insurance industry in charge?

This article is reprinted with permission from