Insured Patients Account for Most of Recent Increase in Emergency Room Visits, Study Finds
Insured patients, not the uninsured, account for most of a 16% increase in emergency room visits between 1996-1997 and 2000-2001, according to a new study by the Center for Studying Health System Change, the Wall Street Journal reports. In 2000-2001, there were 108 million visits to the ER, the study finds. ER visits by people with private health insurance increased 24% between 1996-1997 and 2000-2001, "far outpacing" a 10% increase in ER visits by uninsured patients, the study says, the Journal reports (Foley, Wall Street Journal, 10/23). ER visits by people enrolled in Medicare increased 10%, while visits by people in Medicaid remained flat between 1996-1997 and 2000-2001. According to the study, 46% of ER visits by privately insured people in the study period were considered an emergency, requiring care within 15 minutes of arrival at the hospital, or urgent, requiring care within an hour of arrival. The AP/Hartford Courant reports that the increase in ER visits by insured patients could be related to more convenient hours offered at ERs, which are open 24 hours a day and do not require appointments. Peter Cunningham, an HSC senior health researcher who conducted the study, said, "The results were surprising. Uninsured people clearly are not a major factor in increased crowding at most hospital emergency departments" (Agovino, AP/Hartford Courant, 10/23). He added, "this increase in emergency-department use is kind of a symptom of a more general increase is use of medical care by privately insured patients." The study also says that uninsured patients' visits to physicians' offices dropped 37% between 1996-1997 and 2000-2001. That finding could be related to some doctors turning uninsured patients away and longer waiting times in doctors' offices. Further, the study finds that 45% of people seeking care in an ER in 2001 waited more than half an hour to see a doctor, compared with 36% of such people in 1999. J. Brian Hancock, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said, "The demand for emergency medical care is growing among all Americans, and the emergency medical system is struggling to keep up with that demand with dwindling funding and resources" (Wall Street Journal, 10/23). The study is available online.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.