Mar 6, 2019

Standalone emergency rooms are crazy expensive

Freestanding emergency departments, which provide emergency medical care but are physically separate from hospitals, charge many times more than other providers for the same care, according to a new analysis by UnitedHealth Group.

How it works: Freestanding ERs often don't provide treatment for common emergencies like trauma, strokes and heart attacks.

  • Standard disclaimers apply: Yes, the nation's biggest insurer has some skin in the game here on ER costs. But there's also plenty of other evidence that ER costs are indeed very high.

By the numbers:

  • Only 2.3% of visits to freestanding emergency departments are for actual emergency care.
  • The number of these facilities increased from 222 in 2008 to 566 in 2016.
  • In Texas, the average cost of treating common conditions at a freestanding emergency department is 22 times greater than treatment at a doctor's office, and 19 times more than at an urgent care center.
  • If the location of care was changed to one of these cheaper alternatives, it'd save more than $3,000 per visit.

The backdrop: Freestanding emergency departments are disproportionately located in affluent areas that have access to other providers, and in Texas, less than one in four receive ambulances.

The bottom line: It is much, much cheaper to go see your family doctor if you have a fever — the most common diagnosis at Texas freestanding emergency departments.

Go deeper: We all pay for surprise emergency room bills

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