Numerous studies have shown the futility of continued emergency department (ED) resuscitative efforts for victims of out-of hospital cardiac arrest when prehospital resuscitation has failed. Nevertheless, these patients continue to arrive in the ED, where they create a strain on resources. To assess the economic cost of this, Medicare expenditures were determined for resuscitative efforts on victims of atraumatic, out-of-hospital cardiac arrest subsequently pronounced dead in the ED. Charts of patients pronounced dead in the ED of a 65,000-visit urban teaching hospital during 1995 were reviewed. Selected patients met the following criteria: 1) Medicare recipient age 65 or over; 2) atraumatic, out-of-hospital arrest; 3) transported to the ED by an EMS crew authorized to perform advanced cardiac life support interventions. A total of 105 cases were identified that met inclusion criteria and for which Medicare had claims on file corresponding to the date of death. Ambulance service payments ranged from $105-$391; mean = $263. Physician service payments ranged from $8-$106; mean = $65. Payments for Medicare Part A (hospital facility) ranged from $59-$1,025; mean = $436. The total Medicare reimbursement was $80,197, mean = $764. This annualizes to a national expenditure projection of $58 million. Failed out-of-hospital resuscitation for Medicare patients is associated with poor outcome and high cost. Termination of these efforts in the prehospital arena is unlikely to affect outcome, and would result in considerable cost savings on physician and hospital facility charges. Compassionate protocols that recognize these principles should be developed and implemented.