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Holes in the Safety Net: A Case Study of Access to Prescription Drugs and Specialty Care

Date of Publication
July, 2008
Publication Type
Journal Article
Focus Area
Paid Access
DOI Entry
Citation (AMA)
The health care safety net in the United States is intended to fill gaps in health care services for uninsured and other vulnerable populations. This paper presents a case study of New Brunswick, NJ, a small city rich in safety net resources, to examine the adequacy of the American model of safety net care. We find substantial gaps in access to care despite the presence of a medical school, an abundance of primary care and specialty physicians, two major teaching hospitals, a large federally qualified health center and other safety net resources in this community of about 50,000 residents. Using a blend of random-digit-dial and area probability sampling, a survey of 595 households was conducted in 2001 generating detailed information about the health, access to care, demographic and other characteristics of 1,572 individuals. Confirming the great depth of the New Brunswick health care safety net, the survey showed that more than one quarter of local residents reported a hospital or community clinic as their usual source of care. Still, barriers to prescription drugs were reported for 11.0% of the area population and more than two in five (42.8%) local residents who perceived a need for specialty care reported difficulty getting those services. Bivariate analyses show significantly elevated risk of access problems among Hispanic and black residents, those in poor health, those relying on hospital and community clinics or with no usual source of care, and those living at or below poverty. In multivariate analysis, lack of health insurance was the greatest risk factor associated with both prescription drug and specialty access problems. Few local areas can claim the depth of safety net resources as New Brunswick, NJ, raising serious concerns about the adequacy of the American safety net model, especially for people with complex and chronic health care needs.