Avoiding Free Care at All Costs: A Survey of Uninsured Patients Choosing Not to Seek Emergency Services at an Urban County Hospital

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The purpose of this case study was to understand why many uninsured patients opt not to make use of a free public hospital when it is available, instead seeking emergency department care at sites where they will be billed for the services they receive. One hundred fifty seven uninsured patients were interviewed over an 8-week period at three emergency departments that bill for services near a county hospital that provides free care. Data was gathered on income, health status, and credit history. Subjects were also asked if they had previously sought care at the county hospital and, if they had, how satisfied they were with the quality of care and with the wait time. Seventy two percent of the subjects reported household incomes of <$20,000, 48% reported they were in fair or poor health, and 33% said they were unable to pay at least one medical bill at the site where they were seeking care. 65% reported they had previously received care at the county hospital, and of these 61% said they were not-too-likely or not-at-all likely to return. In a regression analysis, experience with wait time correlated with subjects willingness to return, whereas their satisfaction with quality, their income, problems with debt, and reported health status did not. Access involves more than geographic proximity and affordability. Excessive wait times can deter even patients who are poor, in ill health and in debt from making use of services that are intended for their benefit.

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Journal of Urban Health

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