An ER doctor not involved in the study said the idea of denying Medicaid payments based on patients' final diagnosis is not justifiable.
"One of the great myths in health care is that we have all these people using the ER as their primary care provider. But it's just not true," said Dr. James Adams, chair of emergency medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, who wrote an editorial that accompanied the study.
And ER patients who end up with minor diagnoses are not where the big costs are anyway, Adams said.
Instead, he explained, it's with the people who come to the ER frequently with serious health complaints.
Between 4.5 percent and 8 percent of ER patients are "frequent users" -- accounting for about one-quarter of all U.S. ER visits, Adams explained in his editorial.
Often, he said, those patients are mentally ill, homeless or have other serious problems, but no social support. "These are the people who keep coming back to the ER again and again until someone helps them, or until they die," Adams said.
Both he and Raven said that focusing on something narrow, like Medicaid payments for certain ER diagnoses, is unlikely to save the program much money even if it could be done fairly. "And I don't think it is possible," Raven noted.
When it comes to the problem of "frequent users," Adams said he doesn't think it would take huge changes to see improvements. Better coordination among ERs and local social services could make a big difference, he suggested.
"We could reorganize the delivery of care for just these patients," Adams said. "That would take bringing together agencies that already exist."
Raven said that focusing on one area of ER care for cost-cutting is unlikely to yield much savings anyway. According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, all ER costs together account for less than 2 percent
All rights reserved