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More than $1 out of every $5 spent for Northwest Arkansas Medicare enrollees’ health care in 2019 was spent outside of the region, a recent analysis found.

That proportion adds up to more than $240 million lost by the region’s providers that year, not counting non-Medicare health spending, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI), a nonpartisan health policy center that released the study earlier this month. Of more than 75,000 cardiology procedures performed on the area’s Medicare enrollees, around 9,000 happened somewhere else.

It’s a problem for patients, who would benefit from nearby care but may be compelled to seek specialty services around the country. And it’s a problem for the region’s economy and its health systems, which are struggling to hire all of the doctors and other professionals needed by the region’s growing population.

“Our findings suggest that the demand for services in Northwest Arkansas was already straining the capacity of the existing health care infrastructure even before the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said ACHI President and CEO Dr. Joe Thompson. “Future examinations of the impact of COVID-19 and continued population growth in the region likely will show even greater strain on available services and provider supply.”

The study reinforces previous estimates from the Northwest Arkansas Council that the region lost $950 million in health care spending in 2018 and needed 200 additional residency slots for new doctors. Since then, the region’s health systems have responded by expanding their facilities and by partnering with the Council and each other to offer more residencies.

Medicare covers people age 65 and older and others with disabilities, meaning they represent a significant chunk of health care spending and often need specialized care. The study didn’t illuminate why they left the region for some care, though availability and perceptions of quality could play a role.

“If they’re spending extra dollars to receive care somewhere else, we want them to get that care here,” said Ryan Cork, executive director of the Council’s Health Care Transformation Division. “I want us to be that medical destination.”

Special thanks to our major investors for their support of the Northwest Arkansas Council and our work in the region: