Myths about ED use by Medicaid patients

Dispelling Myths About Emergency Department Use: Majority of Medicaid Visits Are for Urgent or More Serious Symptoms

By Anna Sommers, Ellyn R. Boukus, Emily Carrier
Center for Studying Health System Change, July 2012

Contrary to conventional wisdom that Medicaid patients often use hospital emergency departments (EDs) for routine care, the majority of ED visits by nonelderly Medicaid patients are for symptoms suggesting urgent or more serious medical problems, according to a new national study by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC). About 10 percent of nonelderly Medicaid patient ED visits are for nonurgent symptoms, compared with about 7 percent for privately insured nonelderly people.


Policy makers and providers frequently point to Medicaid patients’ heavy reliance on hospital emergency departments as a problem that contributes to crowded emergency departments, long wait times and high costs, as well as poor management of chronic conditions. Recent research has dispelled misconceptions linking ED use to crowding, finding that most crowding results from emergency patients admitted to the hospital but waiting for an inpatient bed—so-called ED boarding—not a high volume of nonurgent ED visits. Other research has dispelled the mistaken belief that most ED users have Medicaid coverage, are uninsured or do not have a usual source of care. In fact, people with private insurance account for most ED use, and people with higher incomes and a private physician as their usual source of care are driving ED visit increases over time.

Other misconceptions about Medicaid patients’ ED use continue to drive policy. In response to state budget crises, some Medicaid programs have sought to cut ED use by denying payment for emergency care viewed as unnecessary, increasing patient cost sharing to discourage visits and penalizing patients for too many ED visits—all based on the assumption that Medicaid patients commonly use EDs to evaluate symptoms that could wait for a primary care clinician to treat. Media coverage of so-called frequent flyers—a small number of people with hundreds of ED visits—may have contributed to commonly held views that Medicaid and uninsured patients often use emergency departments inappropriately.


By Don McCanne, MD

In an effort to control health care spending we are seeing efforts to punish Medicaid patients for their excessive use of our Emergency Departments (EDs). This reports adds to the policy literature that confirms that this premise is flat out wrong. Just like privately insured patients, most Medicaid patients use EDs for urgent and emergency conditions.

Rather than penalizing patients for attempting to receive urgent care that they should have, we should direct our efforts to incorporating health system design changes that would improve access to urgent care services, both through EDs and through other community resources such as extended-hour practices and urgent care centers. As an example, EDs could use community physicians during peak hours to provide care for less intensive problems that have been sorted out by triage.

With a single payer system we could adjust incentives to encourage more effective and efficient use of our health care delivery system. Under our current fragmented financing system, dominated by private health plans and perpetuated by the Affordable Care Act, rational coordination of care for urgent conditions is not possible because of conflicting interests, financial and otherwise.

We can do a much better job of getting our priorities straight through a single payer national health program.