The University of Chicago case is getting a lot of press and is polarizing the people on either side of the argument about Dontae Adams’ care.
Read about it at one of my previous posts, at ShadowFax’s place, over at Kevin’s blog, or at Scalpel’s blog. The Chicago Tribune is getting a lot of play out of the controversy. It has published several articles already and just put up another one last night.
Just by the sheer number of people writing about the topic, you should be able to tell that the outcome of this topic is going to help define how medical care will be provided in the future.
On one side of this issue is Dontae Adams and his mother.
Dontae happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was bitten in the mouth by a pit bull and had a large cut on his lip. It is obvious that he needed medical care. Dontae’s mother took him to the emergency department at the University of Chicago where she alleges that they began asking her about their insurance soon after they arrived. Dontae’s mom works and he has medical coverage through the Illinois Medicare program.
Stop here for a minute.
If you read through the comment boards at the Chicago Tribune web site, they are rife with people who criticize indigent/uninsured patients who may or may not be citizens of this country for “clogging up the emergency department” by going there for “routine” care. It’s easy to look down on someone is viewed as “abusing the system.”
So let me ask you this: Suppose you lost your job tomorrow and had no insurance. Suppose you had to take a minimum wage job at WalMart to keep food on the table for your kids and you weren’t eligible for health insurance. What would you do for medical care?
If you called a random doctor’s office and told them you needed an appointment for “routine” care and could only pay a small amount of cash, what are the chances that you’d get seen that same day? What are the chances that you’d be seen at all? Our family has good insurance, my daughter needs to see a specialist, and the earliest appointment is 4 months away.
Let’s say you’re living on a fixed income and want to pay for your doctor’s visits in cash. How can you afford to spend well over a hundred dollars for a single doctor’s office visit?
Ah, but there are free clinics all over the place, right? In the rural hospital where I moonlight, the closest free clinic is about 40 miles away and has very strict criteria on who it will treat at no cost. Cook County, IL, where the University of Chicago is located, is in the midst of a budget crunch and has closed down many free clinics. See articles HERE, HERE, and HERE.
There’s also an issue of whether or not the care some people seek in the emergency department is “necessary.” Clearly, much of the care that emergency physicians provide is not “emergent.” But I can say that because I have had eight years of medical training plus all the continuing medical education each year. Going to the emergency department to get an excuse for missing work, or trying to get a three day government-paid babysitter for grandma so you can leave on a trip is one thing, but in general, we have to give the benefit of the doubt to the patients.
Back to Dontae.
According to federal EMTALA laws, patients must receive a medical screening examination when they present to an emergency department seeking care. If an emergency medical condition is found, the condition must be stabilized or the patient must be transferred. If no emergency medical condition exists, the hospital’s duty under EMTALA ends.
From what I’ve read in the newspapers, according to EMTALA, Dontae’s injury was not an “emergency medical condition,” so the University of Chicago did not have a legal duty to treat Dontae once the emergency physicians determined that no emergency medical condition existed.
Now let’s look at things from the other side of the coin: Outside of federal EMTALA laws, what services should hospitals and physicians be “required” to provide?
Some believe that medical providers should be on the hook for everything. Expand EMTALA laws to require that patients receive everything they ask for. We need to provide for all of a patient’s needs. Whether it’s cardiac stents, kidney dialysis, Vicodin prescriptions, Lasik surgery, hair plugs, or a sex change operation, all medical care should be free to everyone. Sound silly? That’s the way our system is headed. If you think that some things should be free, but others should not, then you’re engaging in the same thought process that the University of Chicago used when it discharged Dontae Adams. Where ever you draw the line between free and not free, someone who would have to pay is going to criticize you for your decision.
That “free care” medical system is akin to expecting government to provide services with no one paying income taxes, expecting cities to provide services without anyone paying property taxes, expecting newspapers to run all of your advertisements for free (and to be delivered for free, too), or expecting professional medical societies to stay solvent without charging membership fees.
If we head down the free-for-all route in medicine, then why have insurance? If hospitals are required to provide all services to everyone regardless of the ability to pay, there’s no need to have any insurance. Hospitals can’t refuse care and all we have to do is show up at the front door to have access to the latest and greatest medical technology.
That’s a great idea, except for one problem: Who’s paying for it?
Medical care isn’t cheap. Government reimbursements for medical care are shrinking or nonexistent. New York pays a whopping $17.50 to physicians who provide lifesaving care to patients in the emergency department. California’s whole medical system is in shambles. Very few patients can afford huge medical bills. That leaves the physicians and hospitals holding the bag.
A “provide everything” approach becomes a system where hospitals and doctors are essentially paying for patients to come and receive medical care. That type of system is unsustainable. Providers have gone and will continue to go bankrupt. In addition, the more we lessen the incentive to go into medicine, the less physicians we will have. Who will want to spend twelve years of their life for medical education and take out several hundred thousand dollars in loans just so that they can provide unreimbursed care to anyone that demands it?
Do an internet search about hospital closings. Here’s a list of 50 hospitals that have closed in Illinois since 1980. Here’s another example of a hospital closure this month in Queens, NY. Is the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey next?
Where do we draw the line between care that must be provided and care that doesn’t have to be provided?
The line is already there. We just have to stop trying to redefine it.
The more we try to force medical providers to provide comprehensive free care for everyone, the closer we get to a system in which fewer and fewer patients have access to any care.