Slightly Hazy: An Insurer’s Emergency Room Policy Draws Congressional Scrutiny

By Oliver Kim

Last year, I had the good fortune to present at the Petrie-Flom Center’s conference on transparency and I started with an anecdote about a congressman who decided to wait rather than take his son immediately to the emergency room after he injured himself. The congressman assumed his son only had a sprain, but he had actually broken his arm. So why the wait? Because of a difference in his co-pay. In an interview, the congressman argued for policies to push consumers to understand—and be exposed to— healthcare costs in order to make better decisions about their care: “Way too often, people pull out their insurance card and they say ‘I don’t know the difference or cost between an X-ray or an MRI or CT Scan.’ I might make a little different decision if I did know (what) some of those costs were and those costs came back to me.”

The congressman’s policy prescription is becoming reality: last year, the largest Blue Cross Blue Shield plan Anthem announced a new policy where it would deny coverage for care provided in an emergency room that was later deemed non-emergent (except in certain circumstances). It seems a far cry from simply charging an ER co-pay, but Anthem argues it has seen a rise in non-emergency care being provided in emergency rooms. How are patients supposed to know if the ache or pain they are experiencing is not an emergency? Apparently there is a spreadsheet of over 1,900 ailments that Anthem considers non-emergent.

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