So Much for “Everyone Can Get Care in an Emergency Room”

We’ve long argued this meme isn’t true. But now it’s explicitly false:

Last year, about 80,000 emergency-room patients at hospitals owned by HCA, the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain, left without treatment after being told they would have to first pay $150 because they did not have a true emergency.

Led by the Nashville-based HCA, a growing number of hospitals have implemented the pay-first policy in an effort to divert patients with routine illnesses from the ER after they undergo a federally required screening. At least half of all hospitals nationwide now charge upfront ER fees, said Rick Gundling, vice president of the Healthcare Financial Management Association, which represents health-care finance executives.

So sure you can get non-emergent care in an ED – if you pay for it out of pocket. Please understand I’m not saying that all care should be free. I’m saying that the emergency department is no different than a physician’s office. If you have insurance, or can pay for care yourself, you get it. Otherwise, you don’t. No matter where you are.

Why is this happening?

Hospital officials say the upfront payments are a response to mounting bad debt caused by the surge in uninsured and underinsured patients and to reduced reimbursements by some private and government insurers for patients who use the ER for routine care.

And what about prescriptions?

In December, Skaggs Regional Medical Center in Branson, Mo., began asking ER patients to pay $40 or their insurance co-payment before receiving a prescription.

“If they don’t pay . . . they won’t be given their prescription,” hospital spokeswoman Michelle Leroux said.

The strategy is designed to help the hospital deal with spiraling, unpaid ER bills. About a third of the 120 patients treated daily in the hospital’s ER are uninsured. The change was implemented after the ER reported $1.3 million in bad debt for August

So please, don’t keep arguing that everyone has access to health care because they can just go to the emergency room.

[Cross-posted at The Incidental Economist]