In Germany, regular access and full entitlement to healthcare (equivalent to statutory health insurance, SHI) is only granted after a waiting time of 18 months. Local authorities implement different access models to regulate asylum seekers' access to healthcare. Given equal need, they use specialist (and partly also GP) services less.
Background Access to healthcare is restricted for newly arriving asylum seekers and refugees (ASR) in many receiving countries, which may lead to inequalities in health. In Germany, regular access and full entitlement to healthcare (equivalent to statutory health insurance, SHI) is only granted after a waiting time of 18 months. During this time of restricted entitlements, local authorities implement different access models to regulate asylum seekers' access to healthcare: the electronic health card (EHC) or the healthcare voucher (HV). This paper examines inequalities in access to healthcare by comparing healthcare utilization by ASR under the terms of different local models (i.e., regular access equivalent to SHI, EHC, and HV). Methods We used data from three population-based, cross-sectional surveys among newly arrived ASR (N=863) and analyzed six outcome measures: specialist and general practitioner (GP) utilization, unmet needs for specialist and GP services, emergency department use and avoidable hospitalization. Using logistic regression, we calculated odds ratios (OR) and 95% confidence intervals for all outcome measures, while considering need by adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and health-related covariates. Results Compared to ASR with regular access, ASR under the HV model showed lower needs-adjusted odds of specialist utilization (OR=0.41 [0.24-0.66]) and a tendency towards lower GP (OR=0.61 [0.33-1.16]) and emergency department utilization (OR=0.74 [0.48-1.14]). ASR under the EHC model showed a tendency toward higher specialist unmet needs (OR= 1.89 [0.98-3.64]) and avoidable hospitalizations (OR=1.69 [0.87-3.30]) compared to ASR with regular access. A comparison between EHC and HV showed higher odds for specialist utilization under the EHC model as compared to the HV model (OR=2.39 [1.03-5.52]). Conclusion ASR using the HV are disadvantaged in their access to healthcare compared to ASR having either an EHC or regular access. Given equal need, they use specialist (and partly also GP) services less. The identified inequalities constitute inequities in access to healthcare that could be reduced by policy change from HV to the EHC model during the initial 18 months waiting time, or by granting ASR regular healthcare access upon arrival. Minor differences in unmet needs, emergency department use and avoidable hospitalization between the models deserve further exploration in future studies.