Liver-Related Deaths Decline After Medicaid Expansion Under ACA

Neil Osterweil

November 19, 2020

Liver-related deaths declined and liver transplant waitlist inequities decreased in states that implemented Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), results of an innovative study showed.

About 1 year after Medicaid expansion began on Jan. 1, 2014, the rate of liver-related mortality in 18 states that took advantage of expanded coverage began to decline, whereas the rate of liver-related deaths in 14 states that did not expand Medicaid continued to climb, reported Nabeel Wahid, MD, a resident at Weill Cornell Medicine, New York.

The differences in liver-related mortality between Medicaid expansion and nonexpansion states was particularly pronounced in people of Asian background, in Whites, and in African Americans, he said in an oral abstract presentation during the virtual annual meeting of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.

"The expansion of government health care programs such as Medicaid may improve liver-related mortality and liver transplant waitlist placement," he said.

The implementation of the ACA, also known as Obamacare, resulted in "a pretty dramatic increase in the number of Americans with health insurance today, and there's a lot of literature out there looking at a variety of domains throughout health care that have found that Medicaid expansion increased access and decreased disparities in care," he added.

For example, a report published in 2019 by the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research Priorities showed a significant reduction in disease-related deaths in Americans aged 55-64 in Medicaid expansion states compared with nonexpansion states.

In addition as previously reported, before Medicaid expansion African Americans were 4.8% less likely than were Whites to receive timely cancer treatment, defined as treatment starting within 30 days of diagnosis of an advanced or metastatic solid tumor. After Medicaid expansion, however, the difference between the racial groups had dwindled to just 0.8% and was no longer statistically significant.

"However, specifically in the realm of liver transplantation and liver disease, there's very limited literature showing any sort of significant impact on care resulting from Medicaid expansion," Wahid said.

Listing-to-Death Ratio

To test their hypothesis that Medicaid expansion decreased racial disparities and improved liver-related deaths and transplant waitlist placement, Wahid and colleagues compared liver-related deaths and liver transplants listings between Medicaid expansion and nonexpansion states in the 5 years before expansion (2009-2013) and in the 5 years after expansion (2014-2018). They excluded all states without transplant centers as well as patients younger than 25 or older than 64, who were likely to be covered by other types of insurance.

They obtained data for listing from the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) and on end-stage liver disease from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's WONDER database.

They also used a novel measure called the listing-to-death ratio (LDR), a surrogate endpoint for waitlist placement calculated as the ratio of listings for liver transplantation relative to the number of deaths from liver disease, with a higher LDR score corresponding to improved waitlist placement.

They found that throughout the entire study period, Medicaid expansion states had lower liver-related deaths, higher liver transplant listings, and higher LDR.

Using joinpoint regression to examine changes at a specific time point, the investigators determined that the annual percentage change in liver-related deaths increased in both nonexpansion states (mean 4.3%) and expansion states (3.0%) before 2014. However, beginning around 2015, liver-related deaths began to decline in expansion states by a mean of –0.6%, while they continued on an upward trajectory in the nonexpansion states, albeit at a somewhat slower pace (mean APC 2% from 2014 through 2018).

Among all racial and ethnic groups (Whites, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians) liver-related deaths increased from 2014 to 2018 in nonexpansion states, with the highest annual percentage change in Asians, at slightly more than 8%.

In contrast, among Asians in the expansion states, liver-related deaths over the same period increased by less than 1%, and in both Whites and African Americans liver-related deaths declined.

In addition, starting in 2015, the annual percent change in LDR increased only in expansion states primarily because of fewer end-stage liver disease deaths (the denominator in the LDR equation) rather than increased listings (the numerator).


A gastroenterologist who was not involved in the study said that there are two key points in favor of the study.

"The obvious message is that transplant is costly, and patients need to be insured to get a liver transplant, because nobody is paying for this out of pocket. So if more candidates are insured that will reduce disparities and improve access to liver transplant for those who need it," said Elliot Benjamin Tapper, MD, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

"It's a no-brainer that the lack of insurance accessibility for the most vulnerable people in the United States meant that they were dying of cirrhosis instead of being transplanted," he said in an interview.

He also commended the authors on their use of population-based data to identify outcomes.

"We know how many people are listed for liver transplant, but we don't know how many people could have been listed. We know how many people are transplanted, but we don't know how many people with decompensated cirrhosis should have been given that chance. We lacked that denominator," he said.

"The innovation that makes this particular paper worthwhile is that in the absence of that denominator, they were able to construct it, so we can know from other data sources distinct from the waitlist rolls how many people are dying of cirrhosis," he added.

No study funding source was reported. Wahid and Tapper reported no conflicts of interest.

SOURCE: Wahid N et al. AASLD 2020. Abstract 153.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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