NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Hospital Beds are Suddenly in Short Supply

March 28, 2002

After years of eliminating beds and laying off workers, many hospitals are struggling to cope with surprising increases in the number of patients showing up. Some hospitals are being forced to turn away ambulances. At others, emergency room patients who are admitted wait hours or even days for rooms.

  • Since 1985, the number of hospitals has declined 14 percent, with the number of beds shrinking 18 percent, according to the American Hospital Association.
  • However, hospital admissions have risen to levels last seen in the mid-1980s.
  • Just over 33 million people were admitted to hospitals in 2000 -- up from a low of 30.7 million in 1994.
  • Outpatient visits to hospital clinics and emergency rooms have climbed 16 percent since 1997 -- to a total of 521 million.

A number of reasons are offered for the sudden influx of patients: insurers are allowing more patients to be treated in emergency rooms or to stay overnight; people who have lost their insurance along with their jobs are turning to emergency rooms for treatment; and the growing number of aging baby-boomers is increasing demand.

Experts are divided as to whether the increase in patient visits is a lasting change. But many suggest that shifting more health-care costs involved in hospital visits to patients could discourage over- reliance on hospitals in some non-life-threatening situations.

Source: Reed Abelson, "Patients Surge and Hospitals Hunt for Beds," New York Times, March 28, 2002.


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