EMTALA, the law that requires ERs to evaluate and stabilize everyone who shows up, is a good law. (There went half my readers right there.) If you’re still with me:
I would argue (as would the writers of EMTALA) that we are so advanced a nation that patients should not be dying on the streets because of their inability to pay for emergency medical care. The problem with EMTALA is that it provides too much potential for abuse. This is the fundamental art of social policy — how do I put together a rule to maximize its use for its intended purposes, yet minimize the opportunities for abuse and loss of personal freedoms for whom the rule applies? (Note: unfortunately many policy makers do not seem to follow or care about this. They trust lobbyists to do this.)
If you were to look online or eavesdrop in a doctor’s lounge, likely “abuse of medical resources by certain patients” would be near the top a frequency-of-complaining list. However if you were to look at how much, in reality, these patients actually cost the system, it would be a tiny percentage of that compared to the truly sick. So it’s more a matter of wasting a doctor’s time and energy — these patients are truly draining: they frustrate physicians and nurses greatly.
The other problem is that EMTALA is an unfunded mandate. This means that hospitals are required to follow the rules of EMTALA no matter what the cost may be to the individual hospital.
Often it depends on why the patient is there — which often is near impossible to discern in the first place. Others are straightforward: hypochrondriacs? Easy. Refer to psych. For drug seekers (note: boy would these patients be easier to spot a mile away if we had some sort of national medical record), make sure they’re only drug-seeking, and get them out.
Others seemingly have nothing better to do. While I’d argue that perhaps job resources, education, and opportunities in the long term and for future generations might be a better solution, I’ll stick to health care for now.
If we want these patients to either stop seeking care altogether (not good to alienate people from the health care system, I’d argue, see my other posts in this series) or start seeking more appropriate care, then we’ve got to use our carrots (rewards) and our sticks (punishments) to lead the donkey.
Maybe we just need to offer better options. For some patients who simply don’t know any better, and for whom a stern lecture by a doctor isn’t going to educate them, they just need another place to go besides the Emergency Department. For these patients, we should be supporting our community health centers for after-hours clinics. They’re usually just as well-placed and located as hospitals, they provide more appropriate care settings at much lower costs, and they would also get a patient tied in for follow-up at the clinic, maybe even start seeing a physician on a regular basis. These after-hours clinics should be funded, like EMTALA (see below).
For other patients, they need a stick, as the niceities of education and better options simply don’t appeal to their finer sensibilities. Two possibilities here: perhaps it’s three strikes out at the olllld ballll game. Once a patient has been seen for non-urgent care (which would obviously need to be defined) three times, they no longer qualify for EMTALA at the hospital. If they return, they get a vital signs screening by a triage nurse, and barring no abnormal vitals or other gross, obvious issues, they are turned away. Another possibility would be charging a patient for non-urgent issues. We say, “Sure, we’re happy to evaluate you,” but if you are not even urgent (remember, you’re at an Emergency Department), you’ll be charged. (Note: this latter option I don’t support if there are no other options for these patients, which is why I think we should offer after-hours clinics.)
Finally, funding. A colleague of mine likes to say that a heavenly program can be hell if not funded appropriately, and maybe this would lead to a chain reaction of EMTALA fixes. If the federal government (read: taxpayers) had to start paying for EMTALA care (note: we already are, in the prices of higher costs to subsidize unreimbursed care), we would immediately see the true costs, and take actions to fix it. Currently, it’s all just buried in inflated prices and percentages of costs and losses in hospital account ledgers. Either way, EMTALA care needs to be funded. Some states are trying to partially fund this effort by passing certain taxes, but a national source makes more sense, since it’s a national law.
(Note: “Repeal EMTALA” enthusiasts are either kidding themselves, heartless, or living on Mars. If you believe that Emergency Departments in the United States should check for insurance in the ambulance bay or require a funds verification before they see a septic patient or one after a bad car accident, like they do in India, you might as well stop reading. We’re not going to see eye-to-eye anyway. For-profit hospitals would have no problem doing this, and it’s unethical and immoral.)