Is it an emergency? Insurer makes patients question ER visit

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Alison Wrenne was making waffles for her two young children one morning when abdominal pain forced her to the floor. A neighbor who is a physician assistant urged her to go to the emergency room.

Wrong decision, according to her health insurer. Wrenne was diagnosed with a ruptured ovarian cyst, but Anthem said that wasn’t an emergency and stuck her with a $4,110 bill.

“How are you supposed to know that?” said the 34-year-old from Lexington, Kentucky. “I’m not a doctor … that’s what the emergency room is for.”

In an effort to curb unnecessary and costly ER visits, the Blue Cross-Blue Shield insurer has told customers in a few U.S. states to go to the hospital only in a real emergency such as a heart attack, stroke and major bleeding — or they could wind up footing the bill.

Anthem, the nation’s second-largest insurer, wants patients to consider alternatives like drugstore clinics, nurse advice hotlines or telemedicine. Insurers for years have been raising ER co-payments to try to deter unnecessary — and expensive — visits, and Anthem’s policy marks another round in this long-standing fight.

Even doctors agree the ER — an important revenue source for hospitals — isn’t the best option for minor complaints like sinus infections, rashes or ankle sprains. They say it’s better in those cases to see a family doctor who knows a person’s medical history.

But some also worry that Anthem’s clampdown will scare patients away from the ER in an actual emergency, especially in cases where major problems may not seem serious at first.

“I think it’s completely unfair to patients,” said Dr. Jesse Pines, who teaches emergency medicine at George Washington University. “It runs the risk of really hurting some people.”

Customers in Missouri and Georgia received letters earlier this year from Anthem warning them that minor complaints should be checked out at places like clinics or urgent care centers, where visits can cost $85 and $190, respectively. By comparison, Anthem says a typical ER visit costs around $1,200.