Expensive Standalone Emergency Rooms Popping Up

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Free-standing emergency rooms are becoming much more common. They're convenient, but expensive. Critics says they're cash cows for their owners.

Many emergency rooms are too crowded, but hospitals are expensive to build. So why not just build more emergency rooms?

That’s the reasoning behind a slew of new free-standing ERs appearing across the country, Kaiser Health News says.

Several hospital chains are driving the boom, including HCA and WakeMed Health and Hospitals. They regard the facilities as a way to expand into new markets, generate admissions to their hospitals and reduce crowding at their hospital-based ERs.

The idea isn’t new. These were around in the early 2000s for rural areas that didn’t have a hospital nearby, The Washington Post says.

What’s new is their prevalence. There are now more than 400, more than double the number in 2009. Many are in Texas, Florida and North Carolina, KHN says. The Houston metropolitan area has the most: 41 already and 10 more coming.

They’re convenient, often faster than hospital ERs in providing care, and more expensive than the urgent care centers they resemble, USA Today says. Urgent care centers don’t have the same level of high-tech equipment and aren’t open around the clock, but can treat problems that aren’t life-threatening for far less. (Ambulances generally won’t take people who are critically ill to a stand-alone ER, and in some places won’t take them there regardless of their condition, it says.)

The insurance reimbursement for treatment of a sprained ankle at an emergency room might be $700, The Seattle Times says. That’s three to four times what it would cost in a primary care or urgent care clinic. And prices aren’t always clear.

“The ERs usually don’t disclose prices before treatment, saying they don’t know how much it will cost until they evaluate a patient,” KHN says.

Critics call these new ERs cash cows purposely built in affluent areas to milk the higher reimbursements, which could push up insurance premiums. The owners argue they’re just paying the higher costs of providing 24-hour care.

Have you ever used a free-standing emergency room? Share your experience if you have, or your thoughts if you haven’t, on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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