Study: ER freeloaders boost price of care
March 29, 1996
Web posted at: 11:30 a.m. EST
From Correspondent Ed Garsten
ANN ARBOR, Michigan (CNN) -- When your life is in danger, or when it's merely miserable, hospital emergency rooms are the places thousands of people depend on for quick, quality care.
However, a new study by the University of Michigan shows that too many patients who don't pay up are causing those who do -- individuals and insurance companies -- to pay higher prices for that care.
Under federal law, hospitals have to provide services to anyone who comes into the emergency room whether they have insurance or not, and whether they can pay or not.
"Across the United States that's about half of all patient services, so these costs have to be made up somehow," said Dr. Robert Williams of the University of Michigan.
It's unfortunate that the costs are passed on, because according to the study, the true cost of care in an emergency room is much lower than what is charged. If everyone who visited the emergency room paid their bill, a non-urgent visit, like a cold, would cost half of what's being charged. For a semi-urgent visit, the true cost is just over half the charges. The same is true for an urgent visit.
A common perception is that non-urgent treatment in an emergency room costs more than at a private physician's office. The study showed that is a misperception.
"I found emergency departments are actually very cost efficient, and can provide services at the same cost as doctors in their offices," Williams said.
Still, there is an incentive for some patients to stick with emergency room care. "I currently don't have health insurance, and I don't have a family doctor," said patient Lisa Nichols. "I needed to see someone who would bill me later rather than ask for the payment up front."
The study warned that the survival of the nation's emergency rooms could be in danger as the cost of treating non-paying patients drives up the cost of patients who do pay.
As Williams said, "If they don't have enough people to come in and pay for their services, they would reach a decision that we can't do this any more, we can't provide this service."
FeedbackSend us your comments.
Selected responses are posted daily.
Copyright © 1996 Cable News Network, Inc.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.