The nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Health System Change reports that most of the increase in ER use in recent years has been the result of increased E use by insured patients:
U.S. hospital emergency department (ED) visits increased to almost 108 million annually in 2000 and 2001, an increase of about 16 percent from 1996-97. Emergency department visits between 1996-97 and 2000-01 increased 24 percent for privately insured people, 10 percent for Medicare beneficiaries, 10 percent for self-pay or no-charge—typically uninsured—patients but were unchanged for Medicaid beneficiaries, according to the study based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey.
Together, privately insured and Medicare beneficiaries accounted for almost two-thirds of the overall increase in ED visits. In contrast, self-pay or no-charge patients accounted for about 11 percent of the increase in ED visits. People with other sources of coverage—worker's compensation, for example—or unknown coverage accounted for the remaining increase.
For privately insured people, the 24 percent increase in ED visits paralleled an across-the-board increase in ambulatory care use, including a 29 percent increase in physician office visits between 1996-97 and 2000-01, the study found. In contrast, for uninsured people, the 10 percent increase in ED visits was accompanied by a 37 percent decrease in physician office visits, resulting in uninsured people relying on emergency departments for an even greater part of their medical care. One-fourth of all doctor visits by the uninsured now take place in emergency departments, compared with 17 percent in 1996-97.
"Uninsured people clearly are not a major factor in increased crowding at most hospital emergency departments, but uninsured people's growing reliance on emergency care indicates decreased access to other sources of care, including physician's offices. Getting medical care outside of the emergency department is definitely becoming more difficult for uninsured people," said HSC Senior Health Researcher Peter Cunningham, Ph.D., who co-authored the study with HSC Research Assistant Jessica May.
A news release and a link to the full report are here