On the Outskirts of National Health Reform: A Comparative Assessment of Health Insurance and Access to Care in Puerto Rico and the United States

September 2015 | Maria Portela, Benjamin D. Sommers | Original Investigation

Policy Points:

  • Puerto Rico is the United States’ largest territory, home to nearly 4 million American citizens, yet it has remained largely on the outskirts of US health policy, including the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
  • We analyzed national survey data from 2011 to 2012 and found that despite its far poorer population, Puerto Rico outperforms the mainland United States on several measures of health care coverage and access to care.
  • While the ACA significantly increases federal resources in Puerto Rico, ongoing federal restrictions on Medicaid funding and premium tax credits in Puerto Rico pose substantial health policy challenges in the territory.

Context: Puerto Rico is the United States’ largest territory, home to nearly 4 million American citizens. Yet it has remained largely on the outskirts of US health policy, including the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This article presents an overview of Puerto Rico’s health care system and a comparative analysis of coverage and access to care in Puerto Rico and the mainland United States.

Methods: We analyzed 2011-2012 data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, and 2012 data from the American Community Survey and its counterpart, the Puerto Rico Community Survey. Among adults 18 and older, we examined health insurance coverage; access measures, such as having a usual source of care and cost-related delays in care; self-reported health; and the receipt of recommended preventive services, such as cancer screening and glucose testing. We used multivariate regression models to compare Puerto Rico and the mainland United States, adjusted for age, income, race/ethnicity, and other demographic variables

Findings: Uninsured rates were significantly lower in Puerto Rico (unadjusted 7.4% versus 15.0%, adjusted difference: −12.0%, p < 0.001). Medicaid was far more common in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican residents were more likely than those in the mainland United States to have a usual source of care and to have had a checkup within the past year, and fewer experienced cost-related delays in care. Screening rates for diabetes, mammograms, and Pap smears were comparable or better in Puerto Rico, while colonoscopy rates were lower. Self-reported health was slightly worse, but obesity and smoking rates were lower.

Conclusions: Despite its far poorer population, Puerto Rico outperforms the mainland United States on several measures of coverage and access. Congressional policies capping federal Medicaid funds to the territory, however, have contributed to major budgetary challenges. While the ACA has significantly increased federal resources in Puerto Rico, ongoing restrictions on Medicaid funding and premium tax credits are posing substantial health policy challenges in the territory.

Author(s): Maria Portela and Benjamin D. Sommers

Keywords: Puerto Rico, access to care, health insurance, health reform

Read on Wiley Online Library

Volume 93, Issue 3 (pages 584–608)
DOI: 10.1111/1468-0009.12138
Published in 2015