Patients lacking health insurance are flooding U.S. emergency rooms, many seeking routine care that they should get elsewhere, a group representing government-funded clinics reported on Monday.
The report by the National Association of Community Health Centers found that in 2002 there were 110.2 million visits to hospital emergency departments, up from 89.8 million in 1998. During this time, many hospital emergency rooms closed and there were 15 percent fewer than in 1998, the report found.
“What this report reveals are the very serious holes in our health care system that are getting bigger,” said Dr. Monica Sweeney, Vice President of Medical Affairs at Bedford Stuyvesant Family Health Center in Brooklyn, New York.
“I see evidence of this every day at our health center, where uninsured patients are lining up at the door. Many of the patients I see waited longer than they should have before coming to see a doctor because they didn’t have insurance or worried about how much the care would cost.”
For its study, the group went through published reports and analyzed data from the Health and Human Services Department. All 1,000 or so federally funded community health centers provide the data annually to HHS’s Health Resources and Services Administration.
It found the number of uninsured patients getting care at the centers - which must provide care regardless of ability to pay - grew by 11 percent during 2003 alone.
“Some health centers are experiencing an explosion of uninsured patients as high as 73 percent, and due to a weakened economy and state budget cuts, no letup is in sight,” the report states.
“Fewer doctors open their doors to patients who rely on Medicaid. One fifth are not accepting any new Medicaid patients,” the report continued. Medicaid is the state-federal health insurance plan for the poor.
An estimated 43 million Americans lack health insurance and either go without health care or rely on nonprofit, community centers. Or they visit emergency rooms that, by law, must provide basic, needed care.
The Center for Studying Health System Change estimates that 63 percent of Americans younger than 65 years old got health insurance through an employer in 2003.
Revision date: July 4, 2011
Last revised: by David A. Scott, M.D.