Louisville's University Hospital is straining to meet the vastly increased demand of patients coming to the emergency room. Last year, there were 58,010 visits to the ER to the facility, which is meant to act as a safety net for indigent care. That's way up from 33,058 in 2006.
"The safety net is frayed and getting ready to break completely," said Bill Wagner, executive director of Family Health Centers and ex-officio member of the Louisville Metro Board of Health. "The current situation isn't sustainable ... The system is broken and it's gonna get worse."
"The rising number of uninsured patients is a major driver" of the exploding ER volume, reports Laura Ungar of The Courier-Journal. Between 2008 and 2010, 663,000 Kentuckians — or 15.5 percent of the population — lacked health insurance. In 2010, University Hospital received almost $69 million from federal, state and local governments to pay for indigent care, but it fell short by $20 million of the actual cost.
The strain has strapped the facility for cash to make improvements such as adding beds — to deal with overflow, 12 have been installed in the facility's hallways — or upgrading technology. Recently, University tried to merge with Jewish Hospital & St. Mary's HealthCare and Catholic Health Initiatives to gain an influx of funds, but Gov. Steve Beshear blocked the move, since it would mean losing University as a public asset. University is now looking for other merger options.
Some of the increase in visits is due to the fact that fewer people are leaving the ER without being treated because of long waits. In 2009, 15 percent left for that reason, but "That's down to 1.7 percent this year, after a push to attend to patients immediately and get physicians to see them more quickly," Ungar reports.
But there's evidence there are just more patients coming to the hospital for treatment, as is the case in a program called First Care, meant for patients with less serious ailments, such as tooth abscesses. "Two-thirds or more of First Care patients are uninsured, and in recent years increased demand has led the hospitals to expand its beds from six to 13, become a 24-7 facility and hire a handful of new nurse practitioners," Ungar reports. "First Care cases, which are not included in the hospital's ER volume totals, rose from 8,353 in 2006 to 20,546 last year." Of those patients two-thirds or more were uninsured.
Other area hospitals have also seen increases in ER visits. From 2006 to 2010, visits increased from 45,377 to 49,462 at Kosair Children's Hospital; from 27,836 to 29,357 at Norton Hospital; and from 29,779 to 33,508 at Jewish Hospital. Some hospitals have seen slight declines, such as Baptist Hospital East, but that may be due in part to its retail clinics in Walmart and increased numbers of urgent-care centers. (Read more)