Higher ER prices, case severity boosting spending

As ER costs rise, payers are attempting to blunt the impact with controversial new policies that try to reduce unnecessary emergency visits.

Some policies, such as Anthem’s, look to move patients away from ERs to less expensive locations like retail clinics. Others, such as UnitedHealthcare's, are more focused on making sure hospitals are billing properly. Both payers are dealing with provider pushback.

And the emergency care landscape is changing as more freestanding ERs are established and urgent care centers proliferate. Hospitals continue to compete with these on-demand facilities, which have seen some recent controversy. ER physicians disputed the results of a study published last year by the Annals of Emergency Medicine that found ER patients pay as much as 10 times more than urgent care patients for similar diagnoses. The study was later pulled for editorial review. However, other research has shown that ER visit rates have dropped in some states where retail clinics have popped up to provide on-demand care.

HCI's ongoing research reflects concern over the country's high — and rising — healthcare costs. Data HCI published earlier this year found healthcare spending per person is growing at a faster rate than previous years, with spending increasing 4.6% in 2016 and 4.1% in 2015, following periods of sub-3% growth between 2012 and 2014.

Unlike that analysis, however, the data here represent the cost of receiving care in an ER instead of a doctor’s office, and do not include the costs of other services patients received during their visit to the ER. An HCI blog post warns that the data "may not capture the entirety of what is typically thought of as an ER visit." 

But it does echo results of similar studies that show spending has been rising. 

A 2017 JAMA report, for example, found that healthcare spending increased by $933.5 billion between 1996 and 2013. Hikes in healthcare service prices and intensity were related to more than half of that increase.

According to the HCI analysis, ER spending increased by more than 100% in 21 states between 2009 and 2016.

It's not just ER spending. Private insurance claim lines for services rendered in urgent care centers grew 1,725% between 2007 and 2016, according to FAIR Health, well above the growth rate of 229% for ER claims during the same period of time.

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