The Impact of the ACA’s Medicaid Expansion on Hospitals’ Uncompensated Care Burden and the Potential Effects of Repeal


Issue: By increasing health insurance coverage, the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid eligibility expansion was also expected to lessen the uncompensated care burden on hospitals. The expansion currently faces an uncertain future.
Goal: To compare the change in hospitals’ uncompensated care burden in the 31 states (plus the District of Columbia) that chose to expand Medicaid to the changes in states that did not, and to estimate how these expenses would be affected by repeal or further expansion.
Methods: Analysis of uncompensated care data from Medicare Hospital Cost Reports from 2011 to 2015.
Findings and Conclusions: Uncompensated care burdens fell sharply in expansion states between 2013 and 2015, from 3.9 percent to 2.3 percent of operating costs. Estimated savings across all hospitals in Medicaid expansion states totaled $6.2 billion. The largest reductions in uncompensated care were found for hospitals in expansion states that care for the highest proportion of low-income and uninsured patients. Legislation that scales back or eliminates Medicaid expansion is likely to expose these safety-net hospitals to large cost increases. Conversely, if the 19 states that chose not to expand Medicaid were to adopt expansion, their uncompensated care costs also would decrease by an estimated $6.2 billion.


Prior to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), childless, nondisabled adults were ineligible for Medicaid in most states. The ACA allowed states to expand eligibility to nonelderly adults with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level (roughly $16,400 for an individual and $33,600 for a family of four in 2017). As of March 2017, 31 states and the District of Columbia had expanded Medicaid, while 19 states had not.1

One intended benefit of the Medicaid expansion was to reduce uncompensated care burdens that hospitals face. Uncompensated care is any treatment or service not paid for by an insurer or patient. We define uncompensated care costs as the sum of a hospital’s losses on both charity care (when hospitals forgo or reduce the cost of care) and bad debt (when hospitals bill for services but cannot collect payment).

Our previous research, detailed in a 2016 Health Affairs article, found that hospitals in Medicaid-expansion states experienced a sizeable reduction in their uncompensated care costs between 2013 and 2014, from 4.1 percentage points to 3.1 percentage points of operating costs.2 To see if this uncompensated care decrease has continued, we extended our analysis to 2015 and explored which hospitals saw the greatest decreases in uncompensated care costs.

This issue brief is intended to guide decisions around a possible ACA repeal and further state Medicaid expansions, as well as inform policies aimed at alleviating hospitals’ uncompensated care burden. In 2015, U.S. hospitals provided a total of $35.7 billion in uncompensated care, according to the American Hospital Association.3 However, this burden is unevenly distributed. Safety-net hospitals care for a larger-than-typical share of low-income and uninsured patients. In the past, Medicare and Medicaid disproportionate share hospital (DSH) payments provided significant financial relief to safety-net hospitals. But the ACA mandates a sizeable reduction in DSH payments.


Uncompensated Care Declines in Expansion States Are Substantial Relative to Profit Margins

To identify trends in uncompensated care burdens for hospitals in expansion and nonexpansion states, we used data from Medicare Hospital Cost Reports to create a sample of 1,154 hospitals that report financial data for the calendar year. Focusing on hospitals within the 75th percentile, 50th percentile, and 25th percentile of the uncompensated care cost distribution, we found that between 2013 and 2014, these costs markedly declined in expansion states, and this downward trend continued into 2015 (Exhibit 1). The trajectories of uncompensated care costs were similar for hospitals across the three percentiles. In contrast, we found no similar break from historical trend in nonexpansion states.


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