Monday, September 24, 2012

Emergency Room Visits Aren't the Same As Being Insured


Via Sarah Kliff over at Wonkblog, I learned that Mitt Romney, in an interview with 60 Minutes, suggested that the uninsured could obtain health care in the emergency rooms, where most hospitals, per federal law, are required to provide care regardless of ability to pay. Romney is right that people can get care in emergency rooms no matter how poor they may be, but I think his statement misses the point--it isn't whether or not uninsured people can get care, it's whether or not this is the best or most efficient way to provide care. I don't think that it is, and Romney didn't either just a few years ago.

Visiting the emergency room for non-urgent reasons is enormously inefficient. Experts estimate that visiting the ER for treatment of a non-urgent condition is two to five times more expensive than visiting a primary care doctor with the same symptoms. That makes perfect sense, doesn't it? I mean, imagine that you had a bad case of the flu and you were taken to the ER. Doesn't it seem that a primary care doctor could just as easily take care of you, without all of the added costs of ER care? 

I know this is nothing really new to those of you who read my blog regularly, but it always is good to remind people that just because you can get "free" care in an ER, doesn't mean that the uninsured wouldn't be better off without health insurance. Romney, to his credit, once realized this. Not anymore, unfortunately. Using the ER for everyday health care is, in my view, sort of like driving a Land Rover on a well-paved road--you can do it and it'll probably work, but a Honda Civic can do it just as well, and for a lot less money.