NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 9, 2010

Emergency rooms (ERs), the only choice for patients who can't find care elsewhere, may grow even more crowded with longer wait times under President Obama's new health care overhaul, says the Associated Press (AP). 

That might come as a surprise to those who thought getting 32 million more people covered by health insurance would ease ER crowding.  It would seem these patients would be able to get routine health care by visiting a doctor's office, as most of the insured do.  But it's not that simple, says the AP: 

  • There's already a shortage of front-line family physicians in some places and experts think that will get worse.
  • People without insurance aren't the ones filling up the nation's emergency rooms; far from it -- the uninsured are no more likely to use ERs than people with private insurance, perhaps because they're wary of huge bills.
  • The biggest users of emergency rooms by far are Medicaid recipients and the new health insurance law will increase their ranks by about 16 million.
  • Medicaid is the state and federal program for low-income families and the disabled and many family doctors limit the number of Medicaid patients they take because of low government reimbursements.
  • ERs are already crowded and hospitals are just now finding solutions. 

"More people will have coverage and will be less afraid to go to the emergency department if they're sick or hurt and have nowhere else to go.  We just don't have other places in the system for these folks to go," says Dr. Arthur L. Kellermann, a researcher with the RAND Corporation. 

Kellermann and other experts point to Massachusetts, the model for federal health overhaul where a 2006 law requires insurance for almost everyone.  Reports from the state find ER visits continuing to rise since the law passed -- contrary to hopes of its backers who reasoned that expanding coverage would give many people access to doctors' offices. 

  • Massachusetts reported a 7 percent increase in ER visits between 2005 and 2007.
  • A more recent estimate drawn from Boston area hospitals showed an ER visit increase of 4 percent from 2006 to 2008 -- not dramatic, but still a bit ahead of national trends. 

"Just because we've insured people doesn't mean they now have access," said Dr. Elijah Berg, a Boston area ER doctor.  "They're coming to the emergency department because they don't have access to alternatives." 

Source: Carla K. Johnson, "Emergency Departments: Overhaul May Increase Use, Wait Times," Associated Press/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 2, 2010. 


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