Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 1, “‘They Treat you a Different Way:’ Public Insurance, Stigma, and the Challenge to Quality Health Care”

This week we are highlighting “They Treat you a Different Way:” Public Insurance, Stigma, and the Challenge to Quality Health Care by Anna C. Martinez-Hume, Allison M. Baker, Hannah S. Bell, Isabel Montemayor, Kristan Elwell, and Linda M. Hunt. The authors argue that stigma is a public health issue which should be addressed in Medicaid policy. Even though Medicaid eligibility is expanding to include more low-income adults, issues within the social context of public insurance and the experience of stigma may result in increased disparities in health care.

In this article, the authors examined the experiences of stigma when using public insurance as described by a group of low-income individuals eligible for Medicaid in Michigan and how such stigma influences their health-seeking behavior. Social scientists have long been concerned with the impacts of stigma on an individual’s social identity. Sources of stigma affecting health care experiences may include race, class, gender, and illness-status, all of which have serious consequences for health status. Underutilized care, delayed care, forgoing tests, infrequent check-ups, and lower quality of life have all been linked to health care stigma.

Patients in this study often reported stigmatization based on having public insurance, or no insurance, and reported feeling ignored, disrespected, or overlooked. As patients experience low satisfaction with their health care providers, the result is often missed follow-up appointments, changes in their providers, and reluctance to access necessary services. The authors discuss that groups who experience stigma in the health care system are most likely to be individuals who enter into the system as already stigmatized patients.

Racial categories within health care structures also distinguish between types of people, often leading providers to unknowingly treat some patients differently than others. The authors discuss how providers are taught through their medical training, published articles, and clinical guidelines to presume racial and ethnic groups share genetic, socio-economic, and cultural characteristics. These assumptions ignore complex social problems and highlight the multidimensional processes of differential treatment in health care.

Understanding the intersectionality of personal attributes, such as race or illness-status, and public insurance status can improve the appreciation for how experiences of stigma are compounded. Clinical encounters which manifest stigma have important health consequences for patients.

From their research, the authors explore participants’ stories about being treated differently while receiving Medicaid coverage and focused on two central stigma themes: receiving poor quality care, and experiencing negative interpersonal interactions.

One example of receiving rushed or poor quality of care comes from a woman named Destiny. She recounted her experience of taking her son to a clinic:

“The wait was an hour long…and then they were very quick with us, they didn’t take their time to ask questions…It’s like they weren’t patients, they were just another number, you know, to get them out the door, and the next one in… [The doctor] just sent us on our way without even fully understanding what the problem was… [My son] had a really bad cold or bronchitis and I told the doctor before he’s allergic to amoxicillin, penicillin, and he actually wrote him an amoxicillin script. It was in his file. He didn’t even read through his file.”

Mistreatment by staff or health care personnel based on public insurance status included shaming, being disrespected or ignored, not being believed, or being patronized. Shannon described her negative interpersonal interactions:

“When we had Blue Cross and Blue Shield, we were treated much differently even by the receptionist. People treat you differently. They look at you differently… I sometimes don’t want to pull out my green [Medicaid] card when I’m in the line at the pharmacy…the lady in front of me has a Blue Cross Blue Shield card and the way they talked to her or interact with her…is much different than when I roll up with my green card and my cardboard [Medicaid health plan] card. It’s ‘here, sign this, birth date, co-pay, have a great day.’”

These stigmatized experiences often lead to discontinuity of care and even resistance to returning to these facilities for care. The authors consider an especially concerning story from Carrie, whose stigma experience is amplified by her HIV-positive status:

“My doctor asked me to swab myself one time when I was being tested for STDs… How the hell can you work in infectious disease and you don’t want to swab me? Like okay, I can do that. But how humiliating is that? I’m switching doctors…I just don’t want to go. I want to be able to sit down and talk to somebody about what’s going on with me because I’ve been missing medicine, and that’s serious. It’s a serious thing, and they’re so callous to it.”

As the authors’ research elaborates, Medicaid use has long carried a stigma in the United States as a symbol of waste and excess of the welfare system. This carries with it a set of assumptions about the individuals who rely on these resources. The social construction of low-income individuals who enroll in Medicaid characterizes these people as lazy, willingly unemployed, less educated, and ultimately, undeserving. Inequitable health care received under the stigma of public insurance is fundamentally a public health issue, creating further disadvantages for the health of already vulnerable people.

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