Threats to the health care safety net

Acad Emerg Med. 2001 Nov;8(11):1080-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1553-2712.2001.tb01119.x.


The American health care safety net is threatened due to inadequate funding in the face of increasing demand for services by virtually every segment of our society. The safety net is vital to public safety because it is the sole provider for first-line emergency care, as well as for routine health care of last resort, through hospital emergency departments (ED), emergency medical services providers (EMS), and public/free clinics. Despite the perceived complexity, the causes and solutions for the current crisis reside in simple economics. During the last two decades health care funding has radically changed, yet the fundamental infrastructure of the safety net has change little. In 1986, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act established federally mandated safety net care that inadvertently encouraged reliance on hospital EDs as the principal safety net resource. At the same time, decreasing health care funding from both private and public sources resulted in declining availability of services necessary to support this shift in demand, including hospital inpatient beds, EDs, EMS providers, on-call specialists, hospital-based nurses, and public hospitals/clinics. The result has been ED/hospital crowding and resource shortages that at times limit the ability to provide even true emergency care and threaten the ability of the traditional safety net to protect public health and safety. This paper explores the composition of the American health care safety net, the root causes for its disintegration, and offers short- and long-term solutions. The solutions discussed include restructuring of disproportionate share funding; presumed (deemed) eligibility for Medicaid eligibility; restructuring of funding for emergency care; health care for foreign nationals; the nursing shortage; utilization of a "health care resources commission"; "episodic (periodic)" health care coverage; best practices and health care services coordination; and government and hospital providers' roles.

Conclusions: There is a base amount of funding that must be available to the American health care safety net to maintain its infrastructure and provide appropriate growth, research, development, and expansion of services. Fall below this level and the infrastructure will eventually crumble. America must patch the safety net with short-term funding and repair it with long-term health care policy and environmental changes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Delivery of Health Care* / economics
  • Delivery of Health Care* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Emergency Medical Services / economics
  • Emergency Medical Services / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / economics
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Humans
  • Information Services* / economics
  • Information Services* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Safety* / economics
  • Safety* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • United States