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If you follow us on Facebook, you might have caught the conversation on our page about emergency room (ER) use. Folks felt strongly about this topic, and we had a ton of feedback on the subject.

Here’s what we shared: “65% of ER visits aren’t even emergencies. And that wastes billions in health care costs.” You read that right – billions.

We can tell you have a lot to say about ER visits. And that’s great, because helping our customers access high quality, more affordable care is at the heart of our Let’s Talk Cost campaign. We want to educate North Carolinians about how we’re working on behalf of our customers to rein in health care costs, and one way we are doing that is by helping our customers find more affordable and convenient alternatives to the emergency room.

Non-Emergency Emergencies Waste Billions of Dollars Every Year

From your Facebook comments, we learned that many of you and have either visited the emergency department yourself or know of someone who has. During those trips, you might have wondered why doctors and nurses were treating minor things like the common cold, headaches or upset tummies. And we’re still thinking about a memorable comment we saw last summer from one Facebook user and health care professional working in with ER who shared a story about a patient who arrived in an ambulance because of a hangnail.

While we might laugh at the circumstances, these types of non-emergency ER trips waste billions of dollars a year and contribute to escalating health insurance premiums. In other words, this waste seriously impacts your wallet. And judging by the continued conversation we are seeing around this topic, I think it’s safe to say many of you would agree that this type of medical spending is not OK.

So, in response to the vibrant discussion we’ve seen on our Facebook post over the years, we offer five common beliefs about ER visits and then engage in a little myth-busting.

Myth #1: The uninsured are to blame for unnecessary ER visits.

Fact: Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always the uninsured who make up the majority of these “ER overusers.” In fact, according to CDC data,  people with health insurance through government programs like Medicaid or Medicare are twice as likely as those with no health insurance to visit the emergency room.

In fact, nationwide ER visits increased by 20% from 2000 to 2010.

Myth #2: Going to the ER is “free” if you can’t pay.

Fact: This is a classic example of consumers being shielded from the true cost of health care. While it’s true that out-of-pocket costs can be as low as zero for the uninsured or just a small co-pay for insured patients, we know that most emergency room visits really costs an average of $1,233. Meanwhile, more affordable urgent care options cost an average of $60 for BCBSNC customers. Those ER costs pile up and are part of the reason that health care costs have been rising so much faster than inflation and salaries for the past decade. 

Myth #3: I can’t tell if it’s an emergency, so the ER is the best way to go.

Fact: This is a tough one, but it comes down to education and availability. Researchers have concluded that 65% of all ER visits are not serious enough to require a visit to the ER and could be treated at a doctor’s office or urgent care center at much lower costs. That makes a big impact on the cost of health care for you and everyone around you, whether or not you’re using the ER incorrectly.

Furthermore, there are plenty of resources available online—including on our own website. Urgent care centers are open in many cases with extended hours, and can offer fast, effective care when you need it.

Of course there are always situations that absolutely require an ER visit—you can see a great chart here—but it’s important to know the difference. Not just for your health, but for your checkbook, too.

Myth #4: You’ll get help quicker in the ER.

Fact: The average ER patient wait time is four hours. That’s a long time, especially if you compare that to other care options like urgent care centers, where the average wait time is only 20 minutes. You could watch six 30-minute TV shows in the time you’d save.

Myth #5: Ambulance rides are free.

Well, in some places, they used to be. But that’s no longer the case. The New York Times wrote a piece about the skyrocketing charges for ambulance rides, including the story of an insured woman who was charged more than $1,700 for an ambulance ride to the ER. From the article:

“…even though Medicare’s fixed payments for ambulance rides — ranging from $289 to $481 in 2011 — are far lower than commercial rates. Ambulance companies complain that Medicare rates do not meet the costs of running what are essentially mobile emergency rooms staffed by highly trained professionals.”

The bottom line? When a patient is treated in the ER, someone pays for it. And that price isn’t getting cheaper.

So when should you visit the ER? Here’s a great infographic that breaks down some of the most common questions. Additionally, our “Life Happens” page is a good resource.

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We’d like to hear your stories – and even more ER myths – on our Facebook page.

About Natania Barron

Natania Barron is a social media specialist at BCBSNC, a newbie runner, a healthy food nut, and a mother of two. She's passionate about connecting with consumers through social media and helping to deliver a personal, meaningful experience online.