It’s Referred to as an Urgent Care Emergency Center — But Which Is It?

One night final December, Tieqiao Zhang felt extreme abdomen ache.

After it subsided later that night time, he thought it is likely to be meals poisoning. When the ache returned the subsequent morning, Zhang realized the supply of his ache may not be as “simple as bad food.”

He didn’t need to watch for an appointment along with his common physician, however he additionally wasn’t certain if the ache warranted emergency care, he mentioned.

Zhang, 50, opted to go to Parkland Health’s Urgent Care Emergency Center, a clinic close to his house in Dallas the place he’d been handled prior to now. It’s on the campus of Parkland, town’s largest public hospital, which has a separate emergency room.

He believed the clinic was an pressing care middle, he mentioned.

A CT scan revealed that Zhang had a kidney stone. A doctor advised him it will move naturally inside a number of days, and Zhang was despatched house with a prescription for painkillers, he mentioned.

Five days later, Zhang’s abdomen ache worsened. Worried and unable to get a right away appointment with a urologist, Zhang as soon as once more visited the Urgent Care Emergency Center and once more was suggested to attend and see, he mentioned.

Two weeks later, Zhang handed the kidney stone.

Then the payments got here.

The Patient: Tieqiao Zhang, 50, who’s insured by BlueCross and BlueShield of Texas by way of his employer.

Medical Services: Two diagnostic visits, together with lab checks and CT scans.

Service Provider: Parkland Health & Hospital System. The hospital is a part of the Dallas County Hospital District.

Total Bills: The in-network hospital charged $19,543 for the 2 visits. BlueCross and BlueShield of Texas paid $13,070.96. Zhang owed $1,000 to Parkland — a $500 emergency room copay for every of his two visits.

What Gives: Parkland’s Urgent Care Emergency Center is what’s known as a freestanding emergency department.

The variety of freestanding emergency rooms within the United States grew tenfold from 2001 to 2016, drawing consideration for sending sufferers eye-popping payments. Most states permit them to function, either by regulation or lack thereof. Some states, together with Texas, have taken steps to control the facilities, comparable to requiring posted notices figuring out the power as a freestanding emergency division.

Urgent care centers are a extra acquainted choice for a lot of sufferers. Research exhibits that, on common, pressing care visits will be about 10 times cheaper than a low-acuity — or much less extreme — go to to an ER.

But the distinction between an pressing care clinic and a freestanding emergency room will be powerful to discern.

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Generally, to invoice as an emergency division, services should meet particular necessities, comparable to sustaining sure workers, not refusing sufferers, and remaining open across the clock.

The freestanding emergency division at Parkland is 40 yards away from its fundamental emergency room and operates beneath the identical license, in accordance with Michael Malaise, the spokesperson for Parkland Health. It is closed on nights and Sundays.

(Parkland’s president and chief government officer, Frederick Cerise, is a member of KFF’s board of trustees. KFF Health News is an editorially impartial program of KFF.) The hospital is “very transparent” concerning the middle’s standing as an emergency room, Malaise advised KFF Health News in a press release.

Malaise supplied pictures of posted notices stating, “This facility is a freestanding emergency medical care facility,” and warning that sufferers could be charged emergency room charges and is also charged a facility charge. He mentioned the notices had been posted within the examination rooms, foyer, and halls on the time of Zhang’s visits.

Zhang’s well being plan required a $500 emergency room copay for every of the 2 visits for his kidney stone.

When Zhang visited the middle in 2021 for a unique well being challenge, he was charged solely $30, his plan’s copay for pressing care, he mentioned. (A evaluate of his insurance coverage paperwork confirmed Parkland additionally used emergency division billing codes then. BCBS of Texas didn’t reply to questions on that go to.)

One motive “I went to the urgent care instead of emergency room, although they are just next door, is the copayment,” he mentioned.

The record of providers that Parkland’s freestanding emergency room gives resembles that of pressing care facilities — together with, for some facilities, diagnosing a kidney stone, mentioned Ateev Mehrotra, a well being care coverage professor at Harvard Medical School.

Having decisions leaves sufferers on their very own to decipher not solely the severity of their ailment, but additionally what sort of facility they’re visiting all whereas coping with a well being concern. Self-triage is “a very difficult thing,” Mehrotra mentioned.

Zhang mentioned he didn’t recall seeing posted notices figuring out the middle as a freestanding emergency division throughout his visits, nor did the entrance desk workers point out a $500 copay. Plus, he knew Parkland additionally had an emergency room, and that was not the constructing he visited, he mentioned.

The identify is “misleading,” Zhang mentioned. “It’s like being tricked.”

In extreme ache and unsure of its trigger, Tieqiao Zhang of Dallas says he didn’t need to watch for an appointment along with his common physician, however he additionally wasn’t certain if he wanted emergency care. He visited a clinic on the campus of Dallas’ largest public hospital — and was charged 10 occasions what he anticipated.(Laura Buckman for KFF Health News)

Parkland opened the middle in 2015 to scale back the variety of sufferers in its fundamental emergency room, which is the busiest in the country, Malaise mentioned. He added that the Urgent Care Emergency Center, which is staffed with emergency room suppliers, is “an extension of our main emergency room and is clearly marked in multiple places as such.”

Malaise first advised KFF Health News that the power isn’t a freestanding ER, noting that it’s situated in a hospital constructing on the campus. Days later, he mentioned the middle is “held out to the public as a freestanding emergency medical care facility within the definition provided by Texas law.”

The Urgent Care Emergency Center identify is meant to stop first responders and others dealing with life-threatening emergencies from visiting the middle relatively than the primary emergency room, Malaise mentioned.

“If you have ideas for a better name, certainly you can send that along for us to consider,” he mentioned.

Putting the time period “urgent” within the clinic’s identify whereas charging emergency room costs is “disingenuous,” mentioned Benjamin Ukert, an assistant professor of well being economics and coverage at Texas A&M University.

When Ukert reviewed Zhang’s payments on the request of KFF Health News, he mentioned his first response was, “Wow, I am glad that he only got charged $500; it could have been way worse” — as an illustration, if the power had been out-of-network.

The Resolution: Zhang mentioned he paid $400 of the $1,000 he owes in whole to keep away from collections whereas he continues to dispute the quantity.

Zhang mentioned he first reached out to his insurer, pondering his payments had been fallacious, earlier than he reached out to Parkland a number of occasions by cellphone and e-mail. He mentioned customer support representatives advised him that, for billing functions, Parkland doesn’t differentiate its Urgent Care Emergency Clinic from its emergency division.

BlueCross and BlueShield of Texas didn’t reply to KFF Health News when requested for remark.

Zhang mentioned he additionally reached out to a county commissioner’s workplace in Dallas, which by no means responded, and to the Texas Department of Health, which mentioned it doesn’t have jurisdiction over billing issues. He mentioned the workers for his state consultant, Morgan Meyer, contacted the hospital on his behalf, however later advised him the hospital wouldn’t change his invoice.

As of mid-May, his stability stood at $600, or $300 for every go to.

The Takeaway: Lawmakers in Texas and across the nation have tried to extend worth transparency at freestanding emergency rooms, together with by requiring them handy out disclosures about billing practices.

But consultants mentioned the burden nonetheless falls disproportionately on sufferers to navigate the rising menu of choices for care.

It’s as much as the affected person to stroll into the suitable constructing, mentioned Mehrotra, the Harvard professor. It doesn’t assist that almost all suppliers are opaque about their billing practices, he mentioned.

Mehrotra mentioned that some freestanding emergency departments in Texas use complicated names like “complete care,” which masks the services’ capabilities and billing construction.

Ukert mentioned states may do extra to untangle the confusion sufferers face at such facilities, like banning using the time period “urgent care” to explain services that invoice like emergency departments.

Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KFF Health News and NPR that dissects and explains medical payments. Do you might have an attention-grabbing medical invoice you need to share with us? Tell us about it!

Emily Siner reported the audio story.

Renuka Rayasam:
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