Health reform threatens to cram already overwhelmed emergency rooms

The new healthcare law will pack 32 million newly insured people into emergency rooms already crammed beyond capacity, according to experts on healthcare facilities.

A chief aim of the new healthcare law was to take the pressure off emergency rooms by mandating that people have insurance coverage. The idea was that if people have insurance, they will go to a doctor rather than putting off care until they faced an emergency.

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People who build hospitals, however, say newly insured people will still go to emergency rooms for primary care because they don’t have a doctor.

“Everybody expected that one of the initial impacts of reform would be less pressure on emergency departments; it’s going to be exactly the opposite over the next four to eight years,” said Rich Dallam, a healthcare partner at the architectural firm NBBJ, which designs healthcare facilities.  

“We don’t have the primary care infrastructure in place in America to cover the need. Our clients are looking at and preparing for more emergency department volume, not less,” he said.

Some Democrats agree with this assessment.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) suspects the fallout that occurred in Massachusetts’ emergency rooms could happen nationwide after health reform kicks in.

Massachusetts in 2006 created near-universal coverage for residents, which was supposed to ease the traffic in hospital emergency rooms.

But a recent poll by the American College of Emergency Physicians found that nearly two-thirds of the state’s residents say emergency department wait times have either increased or remained the same.

A February 2010 report by The Council of State Governments found that wait times had not abated since the law took effect.

“That is not an unrealistic question about what’s going to happen in the next four years as you bring all these people on; who are they going to see?” McDermott said.

The Washington congressman tried to include a provision in the healthcare bill he thought would increase the number of doctors.

McDermott’s legislation would have required the government to pay for students’ medical education in return for students serving four years as a primary care physician. The measure did not make it on the final bill that eventually became law.

McDermott stressed that creating a “whole new cadre of doctors” needs to begin now to meet the rising need from patients in the future.

While the measure wouldn’t prevent the infrastructure crunch, it would have provided new doctors for people seeking care.

Richard Foster, Chief Actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told The Hill that the current dearth of primary care physicians could lead to greater stress on hospital emergency rooms.

“The supply of doctors can’t be increased very quickly – there’s a time lag,” he said, adding, “Is the last resort to newly covered people the emergency room? I would say that is a possibility, but I wouldn’t say anybody has a very good handle on exactly how much of an infrastructure problem there will be or exactly how it might work out.”

The Academy of Architecture for Health predicts hospitals will need at least $2 trillion over the next 20 years to meet the coming demand.

“As more people have access, you have to deal with the increased capacity,” said Andrew Goldberg, senior director of federal relations at the American Institute of Architects. “At the moment there is not a lot of building going on because of the economy and a lot of health care facilities can’t get the financing. We’ve been working on the Hill to try to address that issue.”

The group has called on Congress to beef-up bonding authorities and expand energy efficient tax breaks for professional buildings. The vehicle targeted is the green energy legislation making its way through the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance.  

Dan Noble, a principal at the Dallas-based architecture firm HKS Inc., which also specializes in designing health care facilities, believes the only remedy to meet the coming demand on hospitals is to start projects immediately.

“We would have to get very busy soon,” he said. “It would take a fairly aggressive building campaign for the next decade.”