Hospitals and health systems are making stark choices between offering models to assist their communities and reduce medical costs−or raking in profits, no matter how outrageous and shame-provoking their charges might be. Evidence of the extremes came this week in reports about alternative realities.
Let’s start with the positive view, recognizing exemplary efforts in the Charlotte, N.C.-area to both help patients and to sharply cut medical costs. Forward-looking health policy experts decided to dive into the highest Medicaid users of emergency services, discovering, for example, that just one patient, a homeless alcoholic man, visited the ER 223 times in 15 months and had undergone 150 redundant and needless X-rays or other scans. Many of the top 100 “frequent flyers,” poor and repeat ER patients, took an exceedingly costly route to fill prescriptions or to seek pregnancy or other routine tests; 86 of these individuals were known to have behavioral woes, including depression or bipolar disease. The experts found that these individuals visited multiple ERs on the same day, sometimes crossing a street or two to do so. They appeared on hot or cold days, suggesting their real need might not be medical but for shelter.
Community Care North Carolina — an umbrella group, with cooperation and support from hospitals, social workers, nurses, and social service agencies — searched out the heaviest using Medicaid-ER patients. They needed to comb the streets, jails, and even a strip club. They helped the patients find responsive primary care doctors, and other assistance, for example, in managing chronic illnesses and conditions. They connected them with social service agencies for assistance with existing housing, nutrition, jobs, and transportation programs. As the Charlotte Observer reports: