Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Affordable Care Act and Emergency Rooms: Enrollment Opportunity and Visits

NPR and Kaiser Health News reported Tuesday that California hospitals are beginning to provide emergency room patients with information on signing up for health insurance plans, expanded Medicaid programs, and possible subsidies to lower the cost of health insurance for those who qualify. Hospitals such as O’Connor Hospital are hiring more staff dedicated to health benefits and insurance coverage to reach out to the 5,000 uninsured patients their emergency department treats each year.

Benefits coordinators Araceli Martinez reports more uninsured patients view health insurance as an affordable possibility after Martinez provides them with information on coverage options. However, most uninsured that pass through her door find the process of purchasing insurance on their own for the first time daunting and confusing. About half of poor uninsured adults are unaware that they would qualify for Medicaid.

There is an economic motivation for hospitals to sign patients up. Increasing the number of patients with private insurance increases reimbursement rates. This is especially appealing at a time when hospitals are facing Medicare cuts. The expansion of Medicaid allows hospitals to receive payment retroactively for medical treatments if the patient enrolls in Medicaid. The retroactive payments may be applied to treatment received up to three months prior to the patient’s enrollment.

Jim Dover, president and CEO of O’Connor Hospital, explains that dedicating resources to enrolling patients in healthcare insurance plans is also a worthy goal because the newly insured patients “don’t have to come to the ER for common problems.” This is a common argument for increasing Medicaid enrollment.

The argument came under fire recently when Science published a study that concluded emergency room visits increased with the expansion of Medicaid. The study found that people recently enrolled in Medicaid went to the emergency room 40-percent more frequently than others, even when the conditions could be treated less expensively in a doctor’s office.

"Increasing coverage and seeing people use more medical care isn't necessarily a bad thing," said Dr. Renee Hsia, an associate professor of emergency medicine at University of California San Francisco and a health policy researcher who wasn't involved in the study but reviewed it for Science. "The outcome that we desire is not that we don't have people going to see their doctors anymore. The outcome is that we have people who feel protected from (financial problems and) seeking care when they feel they need it."

Sources for this Blog:

Associated Press story in Seattle Times, “Study finds Medicaid expansion drove up ERvisits”

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