Factors Associated With Closures of Emergency Departments in the United States

By Renee Y. Hsia, MD, MSc; Arthur L. Kellermann, MD, MPH; Yu-Chu Shen, PhD

JAMA, May 18, 2011

Our nationwide analysis of ED closures between 1990 and 2007 identified several risk factors that suggest economic drivers are associated with ED closures. Hospital-specific characteristics related to higher risk of closure were safety-net status, for-profit ownership, and low profit margin. After controlling for demographic and market factors, safety-net hospitals are at higher risk of closing their EDs compared with non–safety-net hospitals, suggesting that safety-net hospital status reflects other pressures that, although less measurable, are associated with ED closure. For example, some EDs have difficulty maintaining a full on-call panel of specialty physicians because of unwillingness of specialists to cover emergency calls, especially for poorly insured patients.​ While this finding deserves more study, it signals that safety-net hospitals may require particular attention if emergency care access is to be sustained.

Hospitals in counties where a high proportion of residents live in poverty were more likely to close their EDs than hospitals in more economically secure communities. Factors such as crowding and the increasing challenges of providing high-quality care in the face of burgeoning demand could contribute to difficulty in recruiting and maintaining staff at all levels. These community-characteristic findings are especially compelling given that vulnerable populations, including those in minority groups and both uninsured and underinsured patients, use EDs for acute care at greater rates than other populations. As more of these patients lose access to primary care, an increasing number of EDs are meeting criteria as safety-net facilities, which suggests that more EDs may be at risk of closing in the future. ED closures can have substantial effects on vulnerable communities, causing a decline in care as hospitals serving poor and minority populations select to provide services based on profitability rather than community health needs.

Local market competition is strongly associated with the ability of an ED to remain open. The presence of other EDs within a 15-mile radius and highly competitive markets are both associated with increased risk of ED closures. Previous literature reported that emergency services in areas with poor payer mix are often money losers. Our study extends this finding, showing that market forces, beyond profit margin alone, are substantially related to the ability of an ED to remain open.

Our findings expand the evidence base by showing that economic factors related to ED closures are similar to those related to hospital closures and may be even stronger. All factors (except for the increased risk of hospitals serving a higher proportion of patients in poverty) identified in our study can be shown to be market-driven. Profit margin, for example, is influenced by a number of factors ranging from patient payer mix, reimbursement decisions from payers (and negotiated discounts between hospitals and payers), to competition. Market factors may also be the reason that many for-profit hospitals choose not to provide emergency services.

In some areas, the episodic closure of EDs may be of little consequence, particularly in competitive health care markets where nearby facilities can deliver the needed clinical care for patients who seek ED treatment. Some might assert that such “creative destruction” is a manifestation of a healthy marketplace. However, the market economics of US health care, particularly emergency care, are distorted by the fact that 51 million Americans lack health insurance, and another 48 million are covered by Medicaid and other forms of public insurance that reimburse well below cost. With health care reform, the numbers of individuals covered by Medicaid and other forms of public insurance are likely to increase substantially, with far-reaching implications if these patients cannot access timely and adequate care. In most of the US health care system, an effective business strategy is to minimize uncompensated costs by declining to treat these patients, but EDs cannot do so.

The economic challenge of operating an ED in the face of a federal obligation may explain, in part, why for-profit hospitals were twice as likely to close their EDs as facilities that are nonprofit or publicly owned. It may also explain why hospitals in the lowest quartile of profitability (essentially, negative profitability) and those in highly competitive markets were more likely to close their EDs. Yet even after controlling for these and other characteristics, we observed that safety-net hospitals were significantly more likely to close their EDs than hospitals that did not serve this role.

The closure of an ED can have profound repercussions for a community. Closures can adversely affect access to emergency care for everyone—insured and uninsured alike. Hospital closures significantly affect access to care not only by increasing the distance to the nearest hospital but also by increasing the patient load at neighboring hospitals. ED crowding degrades quality of care, not only by prolonging patient waiting times and increasing the rate of patients who leave without being seen, but also in terms of outcomes, including increased rates of morbidity and mortality. Because Medicaid, SCHIP, and uninsured patients are highly reliant on hospital EDs for acute care, ED closure can displace tens of thousands of uninsured and low-income patients to other EDs, worsening crowding and potentially setting the stage for additional closures.

Our findings underscore that market-based approaches to health care do not ensure that care will be equitably distributed. In fact, the opposite may be true. As long as tens of millions of Americans are uninsured, and tens of millions more pay well below their cost of care, the push for “results-driven competition” will not correct system-level disparities that markets cannot—and should not—be expected to resolve.

In summary, this study demonstrated that from 1990 to 2009, the number of hospital EDs in nonrural areas declined by 27%, with for-profit ownership, location in a competitive market, safety-net status, and low profit margin associated with increased risk of ED closure.



By Don McCanne, MD

We have a crisis with closures of our emergency departments. With our current dysfunctional mechanisms of financing health care – mechanisms that are perpetuated by the Affordable Care Act – market considerations rather than medical need are driving these decisions. The more vulnerable populations suffer the most.

Many of the affluent individuals who have had great influence over the reform efforts may not care that safety-net emergency departments are shutting down, but they should. They could become victims of major traffic accidents and taken through rush hour traffic to their preferred for-profit emergency departments. If they had to ride past padlocked safety-net emergency departments to the other side of town, they could DIE no matter how much money they had or how good their private insurance is.

A well designed single payer system includes regional planning and separate budgeting of capital improvements. Decisions on the location and funding of Emergency Departments are made based on community need rather than on market considerations.

Maybe most of the rich don’t care about the rest of us, but you would think that, at least, they would care about themselves and their families.

Re-posted with permission from pnhp.org.