Emergency rooms overcrowded with uninsured patients is a staple of our debate over the woes of our health care system. Representative headlines include "Uninsured patients flood emergency rooms" from Reuters on MSNBC, "Uninsured patient load is straining emergency rooms" from Cox News, and "Emergency rooms feel fiscal pain; Uninsured patients cost hospitals, docs millions, study says" in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Hospital emergency rooms may indeed be overcrowded, but they are mainly filled with people who have some form of health insurance. The New York Times reports a new study which finds:
People who frequent emergency rooms are widely assumed to be there because they lack insurance, the implication being that their complaints are too minor to take up the E.R.'s valuable time. A new study argues that this is largely a myth. In Annals of Emergency Medicine, researchers say they have found that most patients who make frequent emergency room visits are insured and have a regular source of health care….The study found that 84 percent of the frequent users had insurance and that 81 percent had regular health providers.
Of course, hospitals have to cover their costs for treating the 16 percent of emergency room patients who don't have health insurance by boosting the bills for insured patients. If every patient could pay for emergency room care, then hospitals that are losing money on their ERs now would not be forced to close them down. This is why mandatory private health insurance (with vouchers for poor people) is a good alternative to our slow slide toward socialized medicine.