Narrow provider networks don't affect quality of care, study says

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Narrow provider networks are often considered synonymous with a lower quality of health care, but a new study challenges that conventional wisdom. 

To hold down the cost of premiums, many health insurers restrict the number of doctors and hospitals in their networks.  And while this isn't a new phenomenon, this  narrowing of provider networks is especially common in plans offered through Covered California, the state exchange.

The study published in the health policy journal "Health Affairs" found that while Covered California plans offered almost 20 percent fewer hospitals than did plans sold outside of the exchange, the care provided by these restricted networks is just as good - and in some cases better -  than what consumers are getting from the non-Covered California plans.

The study also concluded that, despite offering narrower networks, the Covered California plans offered enrollees virtually the same geographical access to providers.

The study - carried out by researchers from UC Irvine and the University of Wisconsin-Madison - focused on 338 California hospitals listed in statewide networks offered in 2013-2014 by Anthem, Blue Shield, Kaiser Permanente and Health Net.

The researched obtained provider data from Covered California and the insurance carriers. The data on quality came from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality;  the California Office of Statewide Planning and Development, the Leapfrog Hospital Survey and the "Top Performers Ranking" produced by the Joint Commission.