The Effect of Primary Care Visits on Health Care Utilization: Findings from a Randomized Controlled Trial

Cathy J. Bradley, David Neumark, Lauryn Saxe Walker

NBER Working Paper No. 24100
Issued in December 2017, Revised in July 2018
NBER Program(s):Health Care, Health Economics, Public Economics

We conducted a randomized controlled trial, enrolling low-income uninsured adults in Virginia (United States), to determine whether cash incentives are effective at encouraging a primary care provider (PCP) visit, and at lowering utilization and costs. Subjects were randomized to four groups: untreated controls, and one of three incentive arms with incentives of $0, $25, or $50 for visiting a PCP within six months of group assignment. We used the exogenous variation generated by the experiment to obtain causal evidence on the effects of a PCP visit. We observed modest reductions in non-urgent emergency department use and increased outpatient use, but no reductions in overall costs. These findings in utilization are consistent with the expectation that PCPs offer an alternative to the emergency department for non-emergent conditions. Total costs did not decline because any savings from avoiding the emergency department were offset by increased outpatient utilization.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w24100

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