When the Obama Administration first instituted the Affordable Care Act, the new program had a number of goals, from increasing insurance coverage to improving the country’s overall goals. However, a secondary objective was to reduce the United State’s reliance on emergency room care, an outcome that had been noted after Massachusetts’s health care reform, which served as a model for the nationwide program. Now, many of the ACA’s goals appear to have been met, with a number of Americans reporting that they now have health insurance for the first time in their lives. However, instead of decreasing, the number of visits to emergency rooms seems to be climbing instead. Read on to learn about the cause of the crowds and why you should avoid dialing the emergency room number in the event of a non-serious medical condition.
In March, the American College of Emergency Physicians conducted a survey of 2,098 emergency room doctors, reporting that 75% of the study participants said ER visits had increased since January 2014. This was a significant change from the previous year, when less than half of doctors noted a similar rise. In discussing the survey, the Wall Street Journal noted that this problem could have severe repercussions: previous studies have linked ER crowding to longer waits and higher mortality rates. Meanwhile, at least one hospital administrator commented that the increased patient volumes was driving many doctors and nurses to resign, feeling too burnt out from their busy schedules to continue.
Unfortunately, the ACEP and other organizations say that the ACA is likely responsible for the growing number of patients: many believe that Medicaid recipients, who are newly insured under the law, are now struggling to find doctors that accept their coverage and make appointments, causing them to wind up in the ER after being unable to access treatment. The Journal noted that many doctors don’t accept Medicaid patients because state-federal coverage provides lower reimbursement rates for them than many private plans.
However, experts agree that the ACA isn’t the only cause of the increasing patient load: instead, an aging population seems to be increasing the number of serious visits to ERs, while a national shortage of doctors is making it increasingly difficult for almost everyone to access primary care when they need it. Whatever the cause, some states have decided to take drastic action to prevent ER overcrowding, with a few requiring higher copayments for ER visits deemed nonurgent. Critics have called the practice punitive, warning that it will discourage low-income patients from seeking potentially necessary care. This is especially true in a world where many patients know they don’t have to dial the emergency room number: thanks to urgent care centers, which provide affordable care for non-life-threatening conditions, many patients are less likely to seek out emergency room care when it is not completely necessary.
According to reports, more than 40% of emergency physicians expect ER visits to increase further if the Supreme Court rules that subsidies provided to people who obtain insurance on the federal exchange are invalid. In this concerning environment, try to help your local hospital: avoid dialing the emergency room number unless completely necessary.