Fixing a Broken System

The battle for America’s health is being waged in Washington. But the casualties are literally clogging emergency rooms across the nation. Emergency room crowding is the starkest example of not only our country’s desire to provide medical help to those who need it, but also our failure to provide adequate healthcare to those who can’t afford it

A System in Crisis

For the uninsured, the emergency room is always there as a last resort if their symptoms don’t resolve. Many simply hope they’ll get better without medical intervention, but their problem finally becomes life-threatening, they make the trip to the ER.

However, some uninsured patients are less meek about visiting the ER, and will do so when even minor symptoms present themselves. ER visits spike during cold and flu season, and many cities have enacted campaigns to dissuade people from seeking emergency care for non-emergency symptoms such as a cough and cold.

Nevada health officials are struggling to cope with another aspect of ER overcrowding — the growing number of mentally ill patients being “dumped” at emergency room doors. Beds intended for acute-care patients are being taken up instead by patients with behavioral disorders, and some Las Vegas Valley hospitals have been forced to temporarily close the doors of their emergency departments and halt ambulance services until more room becomes available.

The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act

In 1986, Congress enacted the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (ETMALA), which requires emergency departments to treat all patients, regardless of their ability to pay for medical services. While the ETMALA is responsible for saving the lives of millions of impoverished people across the country who would have died without emergency medical care, the loophole it creates for the uninsured to walk through has been a contentious point throughout the healthcare debate.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has proposed amending the ETMALA. “If [lawmakers] really want to get serious about lowering the cost of healthcare in this country, they would revisit another federal statute that has been there for a long time,” said Gov. Deal, speaking at the University of Georgia.

Gov. Deal believes that amendments to the ETMALA can tighten access to emergency rooms, ideally providing the same level of care for those who truly need it while cutting the excessive costs of emergency room visits.

The Urgent Care Answer

Another avenue of emergency room relief comes from urgent care facilities, the aim of which is to provide patients with an affordable alternative to an ER visit for non-emergency medical situations.

For example, a few stitches from an emergency department costs around $1,000. The same amount of stitches in an urgent care facility would cost around $150.

Working Out the Details

The Affordable Care Act is arguably the largest shake-up in domestic policy since Social Security, and any legislature with such lofty goals and wide scope of action is bound to have a few hitches at the outset.

But can those difficulties be ironed out in time to help the millions of Americans suffering needlessly in the current emergency room crisis? Only time will tell.


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