Suburban Poverty and the Health Care Safety Net

Although suburban poverty has increased in the past decade, the availability of health care services for low-income and uninsured people in the suburbs has not kept pace. According to a new study by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC) of five communities—Boston, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Miami and Seattle—low-income people living in suburban areas face significant challenges accessing care because of inadequate transportation, language barriers and lack of awareness of health care options.

Low-income people often rely on suburban hospital emergency departments (EDs) and urban safety-net hospitals and health centers. Some urban providers are feeling the strain of caring for increasing numbers of patients from both the city and the suburbs. Both urban and suburban providers are attempting to redirect patients to more appropriate care near where they live by expanding primary care capacity, improving access to specialists, reducing transportation challenges, and generating revenues to support safety-net services.

Efforts to improve safety-net services in suburban areas are hampered by greater geographic dispersion of the suburban poor and jurisdictional issues in funding safety-net services. To improve the suburban safety net, policy-makers may want to consider flexible and targeted approaches to providing care, regional collaboration to share resources, and geographic pockets of need when allocating resources for community health centers and other safety-net services and facilities.