Skip to main content

Why emergency rooms don't close the health care gap

By Aaron Carroll, Special to CNN
May 7, 2012 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
That
That "free" emergency room treatment isn't nearly as "free" as you might think, Dr. Aaron Carroll writes.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Carroll: Opponents of health reform say emergency rooms give health care to all
  • Not true, he says. ERs can't refuse emergency care but not required to give other care
  • He says other misconception is treatment costs easily written off; in fact, billers will pursue
  • Carroll: Yes, hospitals need money; important to realize ER care no substitute for reforms

Editor's note: Dr. Aaron E. Carroll is an associate professor and vice chair of health policy and outcomes research in the department of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine. He blogs about health policy at The Incidental Economist and tweets at @aaronecarroll.

(CNN) -- For decades, the attempts at health care reform have aimed to increase access. The United States is one of the few industrialized nations in the world that does not provide universal health care to its citizens. And repeatedly, those who oppose it have been forced to argue that access isn't the problem some make it out to be. Why?

The emergency department, they say. After all, it is a commonly held belief that no one can be denied care there. So -- in essence -- everyone can get free health care if they need it. We have a universal system after all.

That, of course, is not true.

It's not even close. Let's start with the idea that emergency rooms must provide you care.

What's important to remember is that you can't be refused emergency care. That's because the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) requires that any hospital that takes Medicare or Medicaid must check you for emergent conditions and treat them if they exist. Since nearly every hospital in the country takes federal funds from one of these programs, nearly all hospitals are subject to EMTALA.

But "emergency medical condition" has a pretty narrow definition. It includes active labor for women and acute conditions that would cause death, serious bodily organ harm or serious bodily function impairment if they were not treated right away.

Aaron Carroll
Aaron Carroll

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion.

If politicians are meaning to say that women have universal access to delivery care, then I suppose there's an element of truth to that. But there's no guarantee of prenatal care in the emergency department.

If they are saying that we have universal access if we're acutely having a heart attack, then I suppose there's truth to that as well. But there's no such access for lipid panels, stress tests or prescriptions for cholesterol medications that might help you avoid the heart attack in the first place.

If you're acutely obstructed by massively advanced colon cancer, it's likely you can get emergency surgery to end the blockage. But your cancer is likely too far advanced to cure at that point. Moreover, you're not going to get chemotherapy in the emergency department nor could you have gotten the colonoscopy that might have detected the cancer far earlier.

You can't get preventive care in the emergency department. You can't get screened for a host of disorders. You can't get treatment for your depression there or really for any chronic mental disorders. You can't get help with your child's autism, ADHD or developmental delay.

And even if you could, it wouldn't be free.

That's the second and perhaps more misunderstood part of this emergency department misconception. The costs of treatment in the emergency room are not quickly dismissed or written off. You'll get that emergent care, but you'll also be charged for it.

And hospitals aren't going to let that go easily. A recent article in the New York Times detailed how Accretive Health, a medical debt collector, is using aggressive tactics such as confronting patients in their hospital beds to collect the money owed for even emergent care. The article also describes how collection agencies have long been used to go after patients after they've left the treatment facility. In some cases, patients were even confronted and stalled by debt collectors as they entered the emergency department on some later occasion so that the company could collect on old bills before more care was offered.

An even more recent story covered by Kaiser Health News and NPR reported on a family of four sued by its local nonprofit hospital. The family earned about $25,000 a year -- below the poverty line -- but the parents did not qualify for Medicaid in Ohio. It seems that the hospital had sued almost 1,600 people for unpaid medical bills from 2009 to 2011. Further, the piece reported, "[w]hile Ohio has a law that prevents foreclosures based on medical debt alone, it is legal for hospitals to garnish patient wages, attach bank accounts and get a lien on any future earnings, including from the sale of a house."

It might even be worse in North Carolina, where a group of nonprofit hospitals sued 40,000 patients from 2005 to 2010. This is problematic because nonprofit hospitals are supposed to provide a certain level of charity care in exchange for their tax-exempt status. A recent review found that three hospitals in Illinois were providing a very small amount of care for free or at discounted rates. This has led to a number of facilities losing their nonprofit status and legislators to try to pass new laws requiring specify charity care minimums for nonprofit status.

Before you get all riled up, I understand that hospitals need money to run. The American Hospital Association reports that hospitals lost upward of $40 billion in unpaid bills in 2010 alone. I'm not suggesting care should be given out freely or that hospitals should be forced to operate at a loss. But let's acknowledge that patients will be held accountable for the costs of their care, even in the emergency room. If they can't pay those bills, their credit can be ruined. Medical bills are a very significant cause of bankruptcy in this country.

So it's true that an emergency room won't let you die if you show up at the door, but short of that, you can't get care for a host of medical issues. And, while they will provide that lifesaving care to you even if you have no insurance and no money, they will send you a bill. And if you can't pay, it may cause you, and your family, financial ruin.

That's a far cry from universal health care, and nothing to brag about.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron Carroll.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT