Monday, April 26, 2004

ER care being triaged at University of Colo. Hosp. in Boulder.

It doesn't seem like much of a story until you read the details. But, acording to a piece in today's Washington Post, hospitals like the University of Colorado Hospital are no longer providing unreimbursed nonemergency care through their ER. The change is potentially enormous.

To begin with: "As the provider of last resort, hospital emergency departments across America have for decades accepted thousands of truly non-urgent cases and swallowed the cost. For the most part, the patients have nowhere else to go, no insurance and no money." In other words, ER patients with subacute conditions typically got triaged over to the nonemergent ER desk, where their sore throats and sprains were handled. If the bill was never paid, that was just a fact of life. No more. Now they are triaged out to another facility.

Beyond this change, the ERs are treating nonemergent ferently depending upon their financial ability to pay. Nonemergent cases will continue to be seen, as long as there's insurance coverage for that service or -- because most health plans will deny coverage of nonemergency services in the ER -- the patient has cash.

Whether this is a good thing (i.e., hospitals finally taking control of their emergency departments and running them a little more like a business) or not remains a hotly debated issue.

At least judging from the article, there is a chance that patients who present to the ER with a request for emergency services will get a cursory review, rather than a "medically appropriate screening," as required by the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). Federal officials say that isn't happening at the Univ. of Colo. hospital, but it is obviously a risk. And, apart from the legal liability that flows from an EMTALA violation, there is the added health costs: "'If we tell people don't come to the emergency department unless you're dying, that's exactly what they'll do,' said Arthur Kellermann, a professor at Emory University School of Medicine and chairman of the emergency medicine department at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. 'If no one else is willing to take care of that diabetic, then we are very unwise to turn that person away,' because chronic conditions tend to worsen if left untreated."

One of perhaps unintended patient benefits of EMTALA was precisely this: patients with chronic or sub-emergent conditions got seen by a doctor or nurse-practitioner/physician's assistant somewhere within the system, and conditions that could have worsened were treated sooner rather than later. The problems with this fix are (1) some ERs are stretched beyond their limits by such cases, which necessitates the diversion of true emergencies away from the ERs, and (2) from a cost standpoint, about the only more expensive (and less appropriate) hospital setting for these subacute patients is the ICU.

The message of the unsurprising story in today's paper is that our country's ER "fix" for unfunded patients (EMTALA) was an admirable attempt to fix the patient of "patient dumping" but was not a good solution -- nor was it really intended to be -- for the problem of inequitable access to health insurance, and it has become unsustainable. This was the message of a Wall Street Journal article last year about similar efforts to cut back on uncompensated care at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston (Bernard Wysocki Jr., "At One Hospital, A Stark Solution For Allocating Care," WSJ, September 23, 2003, at A1) (may require paid subscription). In fact, the WSJ has done a good job on this issue with a series of pieces, from September to December 2003, including:
• Six Prescriptions to Ease Rationing, 12/22/03
• Universal Care Has a Big Price: Patients Wait, 11/12/03
• Longer Dialysis Raises Hopes, but Poses Dilemma, 10/02/03
• Stark Choices at a Texas Hospital, 09/23/03
• Lilly Fuels Debate Over Rationing, 09/18/03
• An Invisible Web of Gatekeepers, 09/16/03
• Health Care's Big Secret: Rationing Is Here, 09/12/03
Meanwhile, a quite useful analysis of the "hidden costs" in the Canadian health care system appeared last week in the WSJ and should be required reading for anyone who thinks health-care financing woes are subject to a quick fix.
posted by Tom Mayo, 10:46 AM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter