Obamacare Kicks In, ER Visits to Increase

By Laura Fawaz, Contributing Reporter

Hospital emergency rooms may see an increase in visits this year, just as Obama Care’s health benefits kick it.

According to a survey published by The American College of Emergency Physicians, more than 1,800 ER doctors were polled last month.  Of that, forty-six percent reported increases in patients coming through their doors since January 1st; the day that coverage took effect for millions under Obamacare.  Over the next three years, eighty-six percent of these doctors believe that visits to the ER will continue to increase.  Though the survey’s findings uncovered another concern with this new health coverage. 

A federal law from 1986 makes it illegal for hospitals to turn patients away from ERs, regardless of their ability to pay.  This then attracts people who cannot afford medical care anywhere else.  Therefore, having healthcare for all uncovers the need to also have better access to primary care physicians.  This would assist in changing the habits of some patients who use the ER as a one-stop-shop for medical care.  A family doctor in a doctor’s office could more efficiently deliver the costly ER visits.  “Coverage does not equal access,” said Rebecca Parker, an emergency room doctor in Chicago who is on the board of directors at the Irving, Texas-based American College of Emergency Physicians.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, there will be the need for almost 30,000 primary care physicians in the United States, in order to meet patient demand by 2015.  This gap is predicted to widen as more people gain health care coverage, and the population ages.  Patients with and without health insurance seek care from hospital emergency departments for a variety of reasons, including knowledge that hospitals offer a wider array of services than a doctor’s office.  Emergency departments attract patients who don’t have access to a nearby doctor, or when physician offices are closed at night and on weekends.  As well as the fact that most patients do not have the medical expertise to tell whether symptoms like chest pains mean they’re having a heart attack or indigestion.

Most of the patients who visit the ER actually should be there, Parker said, and added an observation that she found in the increase in ER visits.  Newly covered patients have had specific health concerns that may not have been life threatening, but required only the medical attention of the ER.  Thus, they chose not to seek such medical care while they uninsured, as they would not have been able to afford the high costs bills afterwards.

While a survey of emergency department physicians is not hard data about patient behavior, it does however prove to be conclusive.  The results are consistent with studies about the effects of, for example, the Massachusetts’ 2007 health care reform law.  Massachusetts passed comprehensive health care reform in 2006, providing a model for the Affordable Care Act.  In the four years after the law took effect in Massachusetts, deaths from all causes dropped nearly three percent compared with similar counties in states without health reform, the study found.


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