Over the past decade, emergency room visits have increased by 11 percent. In 2007, there were approximately 117 million visits to emergency rooms and the number could rise even higher as more people obtain health coverage under the health care reform law, the Government Accountability Office warns.
A portion of these visits, about 8 percent, are for non-urgent conditions, which could be treated in more cost-effective settings like health centers. The average price of a non-emergency visit to the emergency department is seven times higher than similar treatment at a health center, according to national survey data.
On average, seeking any kind of care at health centers is less costly: the average annual expenditure for receiving care at a health center is $3,500, compared to $4,594 for receiving care elsewhere.
Health centers participating in the Department of Health and Human Service’s Health Center Program are private, nonprofit organizations or occasionally public health clinics. Health centers provide a variety of primary care services, including emergency care, regardless of a patient’s ability to pay. A distinguishing factor from hospital ERs is that health centers are required to provide services like case management, translation and transportation, addressing the needs of low-income patients more directly.
“Lack of awareness of other sources of care, lack of access to primary care and other providers, and financial barriers can contribute to emergency department use, including use for non-urgent conditions,” the GAO said.
Currently, over 1,100 health center grantees operate more than 7,900 sites, serving nearly 19 million Americans.
The Affordable Care Act will provide $11 billion over five years to expand the health care center network, potentially doubling capacity to 40 million patients by 2015.