Nursing home residents are frequently transferred to hospital emergency departments. Delayed transfer may lead to poor outcomes. However, inappropriate transfer of the frail elderly may cause social and financial problems. We prospectively evaluated 221 consecutive ambulance transfers from community nursing homes to a VA emergency department. The objectives of the study were to describe the process and outcomes of transferred patients and to determine if alternative interventions were feasible. The results indicate that the problems of nearly half the study group could have been treated at the nursing home by a visiting physician with minimal medical equipment. Those admitted to the hospital (52%) were seriously ill, had prolonged lengths of stay (23.6 days), and had a high mortality rate (11%). Complex issues of physician reimbursement, proprietary nursing home budgeting, and day-to-day expediency appear to be involved in decisions to transport patients by ambulance to VA emergency departments.