Cost reduction strategies for emergency services: insurance role, practice changes and patients accountability

Health Care Anal. 2009 Mar;17(1):1-19. doi: 10.1007/s10728-008-0081-0. Epub 2008 Feb 28.


Progress in medicine and the subsequent extension of health coverage has meant that health expenditure has increased sharply in Western countries. In the United States, this rise was precipitated in the 1980s, compounded by an increase in drug consumption which prompted the government to re-examine its financial support to care delivery, most notably in hospital care and emergencies services. In California for example, 50 emergency service providers were closed between 1990 and 2000, and nine in 1999-2000 alone. In that State, only 355 hospitals (out of 568) have maintained emergency services departments (Darves, WebMB, 2001). Reforming hospital Emergency Department (ED) operations requires caution not only because the media pay a lot of attention to ED operations, but also because it raises ethical issues: this became more apparent with the enactment of the EMTALA which stipulates that federally funded hospitals are required to give emergency aid in order to "stabilize" a patient suffering from an "emergency medical condition" before discharging or transferring that patient to another facility. While in essence the law aims to preserve patient access to care, physicians assert that the EMTALA leads to more patients seeking care for non-urgent conditions in EDs (GAO, Report to Congressional Committees, 2001), leading to overcrowding, delayed care for patients with true emergency needs, and forcing hospitals to divert ambulances to other facilities resulting in further delays in urgent care. Also, fewer physicians are willing to be on-call in emergency departments because the EMTALA law requires on-call physicians to provide uncompensated care. Thus there is a need to find a balance between appropriate care to be provided to ED patients, and low costs since uncompensated care is not covered by state or federal funds. This concerns, first and foremost, hospitals that provide a greater amount of uncompensated care (e.g. hospitals serving communities with a higher population of illegal immigrants). Looking at the intrinsic causes of high ED costs, the paper first explains why costs of care provided in EDs are high, and look at a major cause of high ED costs: overcrowding and ED users' characteristics. This is followed by a discussion on a much-debated factor: the use of EDs for non-emergency conditions, a practice which has often been accused of disproportionately raising costs. We look at various mechanisms used either to divert or prevent the patient from using ED: these include triage services; and the role of HMOs in the ED chain of care: though the US government has increasingly relied on Managed Care organizations to contain costs (e.g. Medicaid and Medicare Managed Care), do HMOs make a difference when it comes to ED costs? Of particular interest is the family physician acting as a gatekeeper, and the legislation that was enacted to protect those who bypass the referral system. We then look at the other end of the ED chain (i.e. the recipient): the financial responsibility of ED users has increased. Alternative providers such as walk-in clinics are increasingly common. EDs also attempt to reengineer their operations to curb costs. While the data are mostly applicable to a private health care system (e.g. the US), the article, using a critical assessment of the existing literature, has implications for other EDs generally, wherever they operate, since every ED faces similar funding problems.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Costs and Cost Analysis
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / economics*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / trends
  • Health Maintenance Organizations / economics
  • Health Maintenance Organizations / organization & administration
  • Health Services Accessibility / economics*
  • Health Services Accessibility / trends
  • Humans
  • Insurance Coverage / economics*
  • Patient Admission / economics*
  • Patient Admission / trends
  • Triage / economics*
  • Uncompensated Care / economics*
  • United States