By Clive Riddle, September 9, 2011
Yesterday Health Net released what they thought was a benign media statement on Emergency Room use, entitled “Know When the ER is the Right Choice for Care.” The health plan opened by stating “with flu season waiting in the wings, emergency rooms nationwide will likely soon be crowded with those who’ve been bit by the annual bug and who are mistakenly seeking treatment in the ER instead of in their primary care physician’s office or in an urgent care setting. In advance of these yearly throngs, Health Net, Inc. (NYSE:HNT) is working to increase awareness regarding when it’s appropriate to visit an emergency room.”
Jonathan Scheff, MD, Health Net’s Chief Medical Officer tells us “while emergency rooms play a vital role in our communities by providing lifesaving services, many ER visits are unnecessary” and goes on to say “because the most serious cases are treated first in emergency rooms, those with non-emergency needs can expect extended waits.”
This wouldn’t seem like controversial stuff to most, but Health Net then goes on to state “the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) points out that it’s in everyone’s best interest to reserve emergency rooms for those who are seriously ill or injured” and cites the ACEP’s list of warning signs for adults and for children a medical emergency that should demand immediate attention.
And it would seem Health Net might not have consulted and collaborated with the ACEP on their release.
ACEP fired back a media release the same day: “ACEP Takes Issue with Statements Made Today by Insurance Giant Health Net, Inc. Regarding Emergency Visits.” Dr. Sandra Schneider, President of ACEP tells us “the nation’s emergency physicians take issue with the efforts of health insurance companies to prevent emergency visits. It may save some money for them, but it’s bad for patient health and potentially life threatening. It also violates the spirit of the prudent lawperson law, which requires insurance plans to pay for emergency care based on whether an average person would believe they have the symptoms of a medical emergency. In addition, emergency care represents less than 2 percent of the nation’s health care dollar, so preventing emergency visits will never put a significant dent in the nation’s soaring health care costs.”
The two organizations have different takes on using National Center for Health Statistics data. Health Net states “according to the National Center for Health Statistics, of the more than 300,000 Americans who are treated in our nation’s ERs each day, the majority don’t require emergency care.” ACEP cites “less than 8 percent of emergency visits are classified as nonurgent by the National Center for Health Statistics, which also says “nonurgent” does not mean unnecessary. Nonurgent visits can include broken bones and kidney infections that require treatment within two to 24 hours.”
Doctor Schneider closes with “these health plan tactics are dangerous because it puts people in situations of having to self-diagnose their medical conditions — out of fear the plans won’t pay, for example, when their chest pain turns out to be heart burn. Health plans send messages to their beneficiaries not to make any “unnecessary” emergency visits. But it’s not that simple — I’ve seen people with mild symptoms turn out to have life-threatening emergencies. ….This is a very simple message we want to share with all Americans — if you think you’re having a medical emergency, go to an ER immediately. Leave the diagnosis to the experts: emergency physicians.’”
Health Net, in its defense, closes with the tip: “for more information about when emergency care is needed, as well as about injury prevention, visit http://www.emergencycareforyou.org .” This web site, by the way, is operated by the ACEP Foundation.