Study objective: The rise in emergency department (ED) use in the United States is frequently attributed to increased visits by the uninsured. We determine whether insurance status is associated with the increase in ED visits.
Methods: Using the national Community Tracking Study Household Surveys from 1996 to 1997, 1998 to 1999, 2000 to 2001, and 2003 to 2004, we determined for each period the proportion of reported adult ED visits according to insurance status, family income, usual source of care, health status, and outpatient (non-ED) visits. Trends over time were tested for statistical significance.
Results: The proportion of adult ED visits by persons without insurance was stable across the decade. Uninsured individuals accounted for 15.5% of ED visits in 1996 to 1997, 16.1% in 1998 to 1999, 15.2% in 2000 to 2001, and 14.5% of visits in 2003 to 2004 (P for trend=.43). The proportion of visits by persons whose family income was greater than 400% of the federal poverty level increased from 21.9% to 29.0% (P=.002). The proportion of visits by those whose usual source of care was a physician's office increased from 52.4% in 1996 to 1997 to 59.0% in 2003 to 2004 (P=.002), whereas the proportion of visits by those without a usual source of care was essentially unchanged (9.7% of visits in 1996 to 1997 and 9.6% in 2003 to 2004; P=.74).
Conclusion: The rise in ED visits between 1996 and 2003 cannot be primarily attributed to the uninsured. Major contributors to increasing ED utilization appear to be disproportionate increases in use by nonpoor persons and by persons whose usual source of care is a physician's office.