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Study: Obamacare has increased Americans’ access to doctors

(Getty News Images)

Obamacare has increased Americans' access to doctors — and reduced the ranks of patients who can't afford medical care, new data published Monday shows.

Federal data has already shown that Obamacare increased the number of Americans with health insurance. This new research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests that more coverage has translated into increased access, too.

While that seems intuitive, it was never a foregone conclusion that the Affordable Care Act would increase access to care. Some worried that new patients would swamp doctor offices, or that high-deductible plans would still leave care out of reach for lower-income Americans.

Fewer Americans say they cannot afford health care

Harvard University's Benjamin Sommers used Gallup survey data on more than 500,000 Americans to understand what's changed for the country under the Affordable Care Act. The results are best summarized in this chart, which looks at a number of health-related metrics over the past three years:

(Journal of the American Medical Association)

Between January 2012 and January 2015, the number of Americans who said they did not have a personal physician fell 3.5 percentage points. There was a 2.4 percentage point decline in those who reported no easy access to medication and a 5.5 percentage point drop in those who reported an inability to afford needed care.

Gains in access to care were highest among minority groups, suggesting that "the ACA may be associated with reductions in long-standing disparities in access to care, one of [its] goals," Sommers writes in the article.

What this means for Obamacare

This new data on patients' access to care is arguably better news for Obamacare than the previous figures showing an increase in Americans carrying insurance coverage. The goal of health reform wasn't to just mail out a bunch of plastic cards with the names of insurance companies; that's a relatively easy task to pull off.

The real goal was to use insurance coverage to expand access to medical care, and get more Americans signed up for health plans that would ease financial burdens. And today's data suggests that's actually happening — that Obamacare's new enrollees are putting those new plastic cards in their wallets to good use.