State Medicaid Programs Tear Holes in the Emergency Care Safety Net
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State governments have fallen into deep budget deficit holes, as we all know, and state legislators and policy makers are casting about for ways to dig themselves out. Many are climbing over the backs of those least able to fend for themselves in this troubled economy, since the poor have little clout and even less representation, now that the Supreme Court has given corporations and unions carte blanche to finance political campaigns up the political wazoo. Therefor, it should come as no surprise that the budgets of State Medicaid programs all across the nation are taking a big hit, and Medicaid policies intended to protect access to care for the indigent are being bent all out of shape, if not violated outright, in the process. Unfortunately, access to emergency care is getting the lion’s share of the attention in this cost-saving, budget slashing, attack on Medicaid, and this effort is rending holes in the emergency care safety net.

From the East Coast to California, State Medicaid Departments and policy makers have decided to target the ‘unnecessary use of the emergency department’ by Medicaid enrollees as the easiest way to eliminate waste and excessive costs in the Medicaid program, even though there are many far better opportunities to save money and reduce unnecessary expenditures in Medicaid and in health care in general. No doubt, ED care is relatively more expensive than UCCs and clinics and PCP offices for non-urgent medical services, and no doubt, many Medicaid patients could potentially receive this care in other, more appropriate venues, if these venues weren’t already failing miserably when it comes to providing adequate access for unscheduled non-emergency care to Medicaid enrollees. To many people, a cursory look at the efforts to get these non-emergency patients out of the ED might seem not only reasonable, but compelling, in the face of massive State budget shortfalls. Thus, you now see all sorts of policies aimed at limiting access to the ED, some designed to dissuade Medicaid patients from even considering a visit to the ED, others designed to retroactively deny coverage, or payment, for these services, despite the adverse consequences such policies will inevitably have on these patients, their families, and everyone else who might need emergency care. It seems to those of us who understand the implications of such policies the epitome of penny wise, pound stupidity.

California’s Medi-Cal program now intends to impose a $50 copay on ED visits in order to discourage ED use. Texas Medicaid will reduce payment on ER claims by 40% if the final diagnosis is not on their ‘emergency diagnoses list’, and Virginia likewise reduces payment for Level 3 visits using a similar approved list. In Illinois, a very rigid set of criteria are used to deny coverage under the prudent layperson standard, and in Oregon and other states, like Colorado, emergency physicians are paid a $10-20 ‘screening fee’ when the final diagnosis is not on the list of approved medical emergencies. Recently, In Washington State, Medicaid program directors have decided to implement what may be the epitome of bad medical policy by refusing to reimburse providers when the patient uses the ED more than three times in a year for non-emergency problems like hypoglycemic coma or pseudomonal pneumonia or sepsis. The process that WA used to derive this list of unapproved diagnoses, and meet their budget savings target, would be laughable if it weren’t so inane (see this blog )

These policies all have one thing in common; they entail little direct political risk for policy-makers. They rely on the EMTALA obligation of emergency care providers to ensure that patients who seek care from the ED, whether because they are seriously ill or injured or simply because there is no where else they can get any kind of care, will likely not be turned away. It won’t matter if the Medicaid enrollee can’t afford the $50 co-pay, or has to make a fourth visit to the ED in a year for another acute exacerbation of a chronic illness, or fails to pay the ED bill when the State declines to cover the visit, or is relying on the ED for psychiatric care because they can’t get into a treatment program, or makes an ‘imprudent’ decision to use the ED because they are concerned their chest pain might be an MI rather than esophagitis. Nearly all of these patients will be evaluated and treated for their medical emergency and even in most cases for their non-emergency condition, or at least be afforded a referral to an alternative venue once screened. This is not just because of EMTALA, but also because emergency physicians are, in almost every instance, compassionate providers who understand that they are the last, best, and often only hope for many of these patients – the safety net for the safety net.

The States that have adopted these budget-saving strategies also rely on another political reality to justify what otherwise might seem to be a fairly callous approach to the economically disadvantaged: all of these policies effectively dump the financial responsibility for caring for these patients on to the backs of hospitals and emergency care providers. The bet is that voters and taxpayers won’t care if the Medicaid programs in their state take advantage of EMTALA obligated providers in order to ease the burden on state budgets. Despite increasing hospital and ED closures, shortages of emergency physicians, and disappearing ED on-call specialists; the assumption seems to be that emergency care will always be there when needed even if these providers have to work for free. Somehow, EMTALA has suspended the laws of supply and demand.

Medicaid policies designed to reduce payment for ED care also have in common the decision to sidestep the prudent layperson standard that CMS imposed on Medicaid Managed Care organizations under section 1932(b)(2)(B)(ii) of the Social Security Act. Though many states have adopted this standard for Medicaid Fee-for-Service programs, others argue that prudent layperson does not apply to their Medicaid FFS program, and that they are not required to pay for medical screening exams when the final diagnosis does not substantiate an emergency medical condition, even though many of these same states have their own version of an EMTALA mandate on the books. Ultimately, this debate may need to be resolved in courts, where emergency care providers will hopefully be protected from abusive payment practices that effectively result in theft of their services.

The oddest aspect of these state payment policies is that they seem to be founded on the principle that the best way to punish Medicaid patients for using the ED inappropriately for health care services, and change this behavior, is to refuse to pay hospitals and emergency physicians for providing these services. The fact that these policies will adversely impact access to emergency care for everyone, rich and poor, seems to escape just about everyone.

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