July 13, 2012
Contrary to conventional wisdom that Medicaid patients often use hospital emergency departments for routine care, the majority of ED visits by nonelderly Medicaid patients are for symptoms suggesting urgent or more serious medical problems, according to a new national study by the Center for Studying Health System Change. About 10 percent of nonelderly Medicaid patient ED visits are for nonurgent symptoms, compared with about 7 percent for privately insured nonelderly people.
Policy makers and providers frequently point to Medicaid patients’ heavy reliance on hospital emergency departments as a problem that contributes to crowded emergency departments, long wait times and high costs, as well as poor management of chronic conditions. Recent research has dispelled misconceptions linking ED use to crowding, finding that most crowding results from emergency patients admitted to the hospital but waiting for an inpatient bed—so-called ED boarding—not a high volume of nonurgent ED visits. Other research has dispelled the mistaken belief that most ED users have Medicaid coverage, are uninsured or do not have a usual source of care. In fact, people with private insurance account for most ED use, and people with higher incomes and a private physician as their usual source of care are driving ED visit increases over time.
Other misconceptions about Medicaid patients’ ED use continue to drive policy. In response to state budget crises, some Medicaid programs have sought to cut ED use by denying payment for emergency care viewed as unnecessary, increasing patient cost sharing to discourage visits and penalizing patients for too many ED visits—all based on the assumption that Medicaid patients commonly use EDs to evaluate symptoms that could wait for a primary care clinician to treat. Media coverage of so-called frequent flyers—a small number of people with hundreds of ED visits—may have contributed to commonly held views that Medicaid and uninsured patients often use emergency departments inappropriately.