Doctors Think Emergency Room Visits Are Going To Explode Under Obamacare

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One of the major selling points of the Affordable Care Act was its theoretical potential to reduce costly emergency room visits, given the law's access to coverage. 

But a new survey shows that so far under the healthcare law, more people are going to the emergency room. The survey, conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians, found that since Jan. 1 — the day coverage went into effect for millions of Americans — 46% of emergency physicians have experienced jumps in patients. Half that percentage reported a decrease, and 27% of physicians said the influx has stayed about the same.

And even though it was one of the points President Barack Obama and Democrats used to sell the law ahead of its passage, doctors said they've been expecting this all along.

"We told you this was going to happen. We don't mind that it has. But we'd sure appreciate some support," Howard Mell, a spokesman for the ACEP and an emergency care physician, told Business Insider on Wednesday. 

Emergency physicians only expect it to get worse over the next few years. Eighty-six percent of emergency physicians expect there to be a slight or "great" increase in the amount of visits to their departments over the next three years. Moreover, 77% of these doctors think their facilities are not prepared for the expected influx of patients.

Emergency care physicians also expect payments for ER visits to sharply reduce. They think access to emergency care will improve overall, but that doesn't mean quality care will follow — a plurality of emergency physicians expect the ACA to have a negative effect on quality and patient safety. 

Part of the increase can be expected. Emergency room use is a covered benefit, and when people get insurance, the use of those benefits would be expected to increase somewhat.

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American College of Emergency Physicians

But here's the problem: Though the healthcare law has helped get more people insured, it doesn't guarantee care. ACEP says there is an overall shortage of primary care doctors.

Many of the millions who qualified for coverage under the expansion of the federal Medicaid program could also be out of luck, since many primary care doctors do not accept Medicaid patients. Because Medicaid coverage pays so little, it is the main problem, whereas more than 8 million people signed up for private insurance through exchanges established by the law.

The Obama administration said the study comes too soon to draw any long-term conclusions. 

"This survey, looking at only the first three months of coverage, cannot speak to the long-term effects of expanded coverage, which will be shaped by our continuing efforts to help people use their new primary care and preventive care benefits and to invest in innovative approaches aimed at improving our nation’s system of primary care," a Department of Health and Human Services told Business Insider in a statement.

Still, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, there will be a shortage of about 30,000 too few primary care physicians to keep up with patient demand next year. And the problem is expected to grow — over the next decade, according to the study, primary care physicians will rise by only 7%.

Combined with the fact the American population is getting older — a 36% increase in the American population over 65 — ACEP is warning the U.S. is on something of a "collision course."

"Emergency visits will increase in large part because more people will have health insurance and therefore will be seeking medical care," said  Alex Rosenau , the president of ACEP. 

"But America has severe primary care physician shortages, and many physicians do not accept Medicaid patients, because Medicaid pays so low. When people can't get appointments with physicians, they will seek care in emergency departments.  In addition, the population is aging, and older people are more likely to have chronic medical conditions that require emergency care."

A classic example of where the problem continues to manifest is with a patient who has asthma but waits until an emergency to seek coverage. As Mell explains, a primary care doctor should be able to solve the health problem in its infancy — for example, prescribing an inhaler to an asthma-inflicted patient. Instead, the patient will wait until they have an asthma attack. That means $50-$100 worth of medicine becomes thousands of dollars in emergency care.

Some health-policy experts think much of the increase can be mitigated by educating patients about their healthcare options. Many people who just gained insurance for the first time are simply used to routinely going to the emergency room for their healthcare needs.

" Part of the need in this new environment is to teach people who have not had insurance at all or very often in the past how best to use it and the best ways to access care," said Linda Blumberg, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. "That is, they need help to understand the importance of identifying and using a usual source of care outside of the ER for non emergent situations."

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