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President's Advisory Commission on Consumer Protection and Quality in the Health Care Industry

Consumer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities
Chapter Three
Access to Emergency Services
Statement of the Right

Consumers have the right to access emergency health care services when and where the need arises. Health plans should provide payment when a consumer presents to an emergency department with acute symptoms of sufficient severity -- including severe pain -- such that a "prudent layperson" could reasonably expect the absence of medical attention to result in placing that consumer's health in serious jeopardy, serious impairment to bodily functions, or serious dysfunction of any bodily organ or part.

To ensure this right:

  • Health plans should educate their members about the availability, location, and appropriate use of emergency and other medical services; cost-sharing provisions for emergency services; and the availability of care outside an emergency department.
  • Health plans using a defined network of providers should cover emergency department screening and stabilization services both in network and out of network without prior authorization for use consistent with the prudent layperson standard. Non-network providers and facilities should not bill patients for any charges in excess of health plans' routine payment arrangements.
  • Emergency department personnel should contact a patient's primary care provider or health plan, as appropriate, as quickly as possible to discuss follow-up and post-stabilization care and promote continuity of care.


In 1995, Americans paid an estimated 96.5 million visits to emergency departments, nearly 37 visits per 100 persons (Stussman, 1997). By tradition, emergency departments (EDs) have handled a spectrum of illness, but have had the primary mission of treating those with acutely serious, even life-threatening, medical conditions. Emergency services can be defined as services that are needed or appear to be needed immediately because of injury or sudden illness that threatens serious impairment of any bodily function, and/or serious dysfunction of any bodily organ or part.

Patients go to the emergency department with nonurgent problems for various reasons. Economic and geographic barriers to other forms of care, the lack of a regular provider, and other factors can and do prompt patients to turn to the emergency department for primary and other nonurgent care. Apart from lack of health insurance coverage, nonfinancial barriers to primary care encourage patients to seek evaluation and treatment in the ED. These include problems with work schedules, access to transportation, and concerns about personal safety (Rask, Williams, Parker, et al., 1994). Physician offices and primary care clinics often have limited hours of operation, while EDs are open 24 hours a day. Medicaid beneficiaries, who have a history of limited access to regular providers, have particularly strong relationships with EDs as the provider of first and last resort. Nonurgent visits to the ED can be costly, contribute to overcrowded waiting rooms, divert resources away from other hospital-based care, and compromise the coordination and continuity of care.

But drawing the line between urgent and nonurgent use of the ED is not an easy decision for providers, health plans, and consumers. Criteria -- both prospective and retrospective -- for appropriate ED use are in many ways inadequate. By one criterion, a patient's ED visit might be deemed appropriate, and by another, not so (Lowe and Bindman, 1997). Health care professionals do not agree among themselves about the need for urgent care among emergency department patients (Gill, Reese, and Diamond, 1996). In a survey of 56 hospital EDs, 5.5 percent of patients initially classified by triage nurses as nonurgent were later admitted to the hospital from the ED (Young, Wagner, Kellerman, et al., 1996). Studies estimate that those presenting with nonurgent problems to the ED range from 6.3 percent (Cunningham, Clancy, and Cohen, et al., 1995) to 54.2 percent (Stussman, 1997) of ED visits.

To better manage care and costs in the ED setting, indemnity and managed care plans use a range of tools that includes requirements for prior authorization and imposition of higher cost-sharing for use of out-of-network emergency departments. A 1989 survey of HMO medical directors found coverage policies for ED use across the HMO industry to be fairly uniform (Kerr, 1989). Unless the condition is life-threatening, patients must obtain prior authorization before seeking emergency care services in 80 percent of the responding HMOs, and 38 percent limited their coverage to the EDs of selected network hospitals. A study undertaken by the Center for Health Policy Studies shows that private indemnity insurers have adopted many of these same practices in their fee-for-service arrangements (PPRC, 1996).

A growing set of State and Federal laws and regulations clarify and protect consumers' access to appropriate emergency services. The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) requires all Medicare participating hospitals to evaluate whether a patient has an emergency medical condition and, if so, to stabilize the patient. The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 requires health plans participating in Medicare or Medicaid to reimburse for emergency services using a "prudent layperson" standard. Numerous States also have adopted this standard for access to emergency services. The Commission's recommendation seeks to create uniformity in all States.

Implications of the Right

  • Health care providers. Health care providers will need to work to educate consumers about the appropriate use of emergency department services while working to increase the hours and locations of primary care clinics and other facilities to ease access to such services outside of emergency departments. Emergency department personnel need to make strong efforts to ensure the continuity of care of emergency patients by communicating with patients' primary care providers. Efforts should be made to assist consumers with language, communication, or other barriers.
  • Health plans. Health plans need to expand consumer education efforts and, when it is within their control, expand hours and location of primary care facilities to facilitate access to such services outside of emergency departments. Plans need to ensure that their coverage and payment policies are consistent with the "prudent layperson" standard.
  • Consumers. Consumers need to become more familiar with the location and hours of nonemergency care settings and strive to make greater use of such facilities when appropriate. Consumers should communicate with their providers and plans to understand any restrictions on their access to emergency services.

References and Selected Reading

Cunningham PJ, Clancy CM, Cohen WJ. "The Use of Hospital Emergency Departments for Nonurgent Health Problems: A National Perspective." Med Care Res Rev 1995; 52(4):453-474.

Gill JM, Reese CL, Diamond JJ. "Disagreement among Health Care Professionals about the Urgent Care Needs of Emergency Department Patients." Ann Emerg Med 1996; 28(5):474-479.

Kerr HD. "Access to Emergency Departments: A Survey of HMO Policies." Ann Emerg Med 1989; 18(3):274-277.

Lowe RA, Bindman AB. "Judging Who Needs Emergency Department Care: A Prerequisite for Policy-Making." Am J Emerg Med 1997; 15(2):133-136.

Physician Payment Review Commission. Managing Medicare's Fee-for-Service Program. 1996 Annual Report to Congress. Washington, DC: PPRC; 1996; 196-199.

Rask KJ, Williams MV, Parker RM, et al. "Obstacles Predicting Lack of a Regular Provider and Delays in Seeking Care for Patients at an Urban Public Hospital." JAMA 1994; 271:1931-1933.

Stussman BJ. National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey: 1995 Emergency Department Survey. Advance Data from Vital and Health Statistics (no. 285). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics; 1997.

Young GP, Wagner MB, Kellermann AL, et al. "Ambulatory Visits to Hospital Emergency Departments: Patterns and Reasons for Use." JAMA 1996; 276:460-465.

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