The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Emergency room crisis:
Caused by more than flu germs

Jan 22, 2001

Throughout the country, hospital emergency rooms are seeing twice as many patients as they were only three years ago. When ERs can't handle more patients, ambulances are diverted from one hospital to another, as, for example, during flu season. Now for the first time, some hospitals in urban areas are diverting year-round. On extremely busy days, hospitals can refuse ambulances several times within one day.

Ambulance drivers are sometimes forced to stay with their patients on stretchers in the ERs because the hospital has no more place to put patients while they wait for hours. Some patients, after a long wait, leave without being seen.

One cause of this problem is the growing number of uninsured people, including contractual and temporary workers who have no benefits. Other people work full time for companies that provide no health insurance. Nationwide the number of uninsured is 43 million. In Washington, DC, close to one out of every five people are uninsured, including many children.

This has a spiralling effect. When children or adults don't get timely and adequate primary care, small problems... become serious problems... become emergencies... and people head for ERs. Even for less acute problems, without medical insurance, people often don't have a doctor. They have no choice but to go to an ER.

So what are hospitals doing about this growing crisis? Instead of increasing the coverage available to fill the need, hospitals, especially ERs, discourage people from coming in for treatment. Washington DC's one public hospital, DC General, recently laid off 300 workers and pared down several units.

Every other industrialized nation in the world considers it the responsibility of society to provide to its entire population at least some measure of basic health insurance and primary care. Only in the U.S. do we have this outrageous situation, where a significant proportion of the population, many who have jobs, get inferior medical care, or no care at all.

What use is it to live in the richest country in the world, the one which has the highest level of medical technology, when it's not available to many working people?