Though Americans make 1.8 million asthma-related outpatient visits to the emergency department (ED) annually, little is known about the episodic charges for asthma care in the ED. We therefore sought to assess the bills patients could face for acute asthma incidents by examining hospital charges for asthma-related outpatient ED visits. We performed a nationwide, cross-sectional study of 2.9 million weighted asthma-related outpatient ED visits from 2006–2008 using data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. We found that the average charge for an outpatient ED visit was $1,502 (95% CI $1,493–$1,511). The charges did not vary significantly by insurance group but did increase significantly with age. Our results indicate that the financial burden of ED care for asthma may take a severe toll on low-income populations who have limited ability to pay, especially patients who must pay undiscounted charges, including the uninsured and those on high-deductible health plans.
Asthma, fees and charges, health services research, delivery of health care
In 2011, an estimated 25.9 million Americans had asthma, including almost 10% of American children.1,2 Asthma costs the United States $56 billion annually, and specifically accounts for $50.1 billion in direct health care costs.3 This includes the costs of the estimated 1.8 million asthma-related visits that occur in U.S. emergency departments (EDs) every year, amounting to approximately nine visits for every 100 Americans with asthma.4,5
Emergency department visits for asthma are disproportionately common among minorities, those of lower socioeconomic status, and the uninsured.5–10 The costs of an ED visit can be devastating to these patients, who already face financial and social hardships that limit their access to care and ability to pay. For instance, the 16% of Americans who are uninsured often wait for symptoms to deteriorate due to financial barriers to care, and eventually must seek urgent care in the ED.11 In fact, visits to the ED accounted for 39% of all health care visits for asthma among uninsured patients, compared with 14% for the privately insured and those insured by Medicaid.12 In [End Page 396] addition, low-income Medicaid patients disproportionately seek care in the ED,13 and increasingly could face unaffordable and burdensome co-pays and cost sharing as part of their care.14–16
Previous work by our team has explored charges for the top ten ED diagnoses among non-elderly adults, but has not addressed charges for asthma.17 Due to the disproportionate health care use for asthma by low-income patients,5 who are often uninsured and have limited ability to pay, we felt that charges for ED treatment of asthma were particularly relevant for patients and policymakers. In addition, though asthma patients are significantly more likely to receive outpatient care in the ED than be admitted to the hospital,12,18 past studies of the cost burden of hospital visits for asthma patients have focused on inpatient care.19–22 As emergency department charges rise,23 and patients are responsible for a greater portion of their health care costs,24 understanding the cost of this ED care for asthma is increasingly important to patients. Further, emergency physicians often struggle to respond to inquiries from patients about the charges of their care25 and should have information available as to an asthma patient’s likely charges.
In this study, we sought to assess the financial burden of acute asthma exacerbations by analyzing the charges facing patients who visit the ED as an outpatient for asthma-related complications. Specifically, we attempted to determine whether these charges vary by insurance status, as different charges have unique consequences for these demographics.
We performed a nationwide, cross-sectional study of outpatient asthma-related ED visits from 2006–2008. Data on visits, charges and insurance status were obtained from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) conducted by the Agency for Health care Research and Quality. The MEPS is a large-scale national survey that incorporates a Household Component gathered from a sample of patients and households who are representative of the U.S. civilian non-institutionalized population.26 An additional Medical Provider Component consists of data provided by pharmacies and medical providers to supplement and verify information from the household sample.27 Specifically, the Emergency Room Visits portion of the Medical Provider Component collects information on each reported visit, including diagnosis and procedure codes, charges, and payments.
Study design and data sources
To create a database of ED visits, we linked the MEPS Emergency Room Visits data file (patient conditions, charges, expenditures, and payments) with the MEPS Full Year Consolidated data file (patient demographic and insurance information). In accordance with previous studies using MEPS,28 our sample consisted of all outpatient ED visits that had asthma recorded as one of the top three patient conditions (International Classification of Diseases, 9th Edition [ICD-9] code 493). We focused on outpatient ED visits so that our data would not be affected by hospitalization expenses or severe comorbidities that would drive up charges. In our stratified analysis, we defined four categories for patient insurance: uninsured, Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance. The insurance status variables indicated whether a patient had a particular form of insurance at any time during the year of the ED visit. [End Page 397]
This study was exempt from review by the UCSF Institutional Review Board.
Our primary outcome measure was total charges: the dollar amount seen on a patient’s hospital bill, to be paid either by the patient or their insurance.
Initially, we compared the demographics of our sample including race, income, region, gender, and age between different insurance groups using a chi-square test of independence. We then descriptively analyzed the charges by insurance group, using ANOVA to compare means between the groups. Charges were adjusted to 2008 USD due to substantial changes in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index from 2006 to 2008.29 For population-level estimates, the data were weighted according to the appropriate sampling weights for the 2006–2008 MEPS surveys.30
We further stratified these insurance-specific charges by age group (0–19 years, 20–44 years, 45–64 years, and 65 years or older) as is commonly done in the literature on medical charges and spending31,32 in order to provide estimates with less variability due to comorbidities, severity, and clinical outcomes.26,27 Finally, we ran a linear regression model using log-transformed charges as our dependent variable to control for charge’s rightward skew. We regressed age on these charges and used fixed effects for insurance to calculate predicted prices for each insurance type at different ages. We further controlled for region, patient income, race, and gender.
The final weighted sample consisted of 2.9 million asthma-related ED visits from 2006–2008. As shown in Table 1, the majority of the sample was non-white (77%) and low income (≤ 200% of the federal poverty line [FPL]) (56%). Twenty percent of patients had no insurance, Medicaid covered 39%, 19% had Medicare, and 46% were privately insured. Low-income patients (≤ 200% FPL) comprised 69% of those with no insurance, 87% of Medicaid patients, 66% of Medicare patients, and 24% of the privately insured.
The charges incurred for asthma-related ED visits ranged from $19 to $12,601, averaging $1,502 per visit (95% CI 1493–1511). Table 2 shows charges by age and insurance status. Medicare patients had the highest mean charge at $2,211 per visit (95% CI: $1619–$2803), followed by the privately insured ($1,767; 95% CI: $1478–$2055). Uninsured ($1,463; 95% CI: $1075–$1851) and Medicaid patients ($1,450; 95% CI: $1221–$1678) had lower charges. Upon analysis of the stratified charges using ANOVA, we could not reject the possibility that all of the insurance group means were the same.
Our linear model indicated that predicted charges for outpatient asthma-related ED visits increased significantly with age across all insurance groups, as shown in Figure 1.
Our results indicate that in the United States, patients will be charged an average of $1,502 for an outpatient ED visit for asthma. The variability is large, however, as charges can range from $19 to $12,601. These costs of visiting the ED can also be multiplicative, as visits are common among patients with chronic asthma.33 These charges pose a significant hardship to asthma patients who are uninsured or who have high deductible health plans, as they are responsible for all or most of this charge each time they visit. [End Page 398]
[End Page 399]
[End Page 400]
These groups encompass an increasing portion of patients, because though the number of uninsured Americans has leveled at 16%,34 the proportion of people with employer-sponsored insurance plans with deductibles over $1,000 for single coverage ($2,000 for family coverage) has increased from 4% in 2006 to 19% in 2012.24 Past literature has shown that high-deductible plans can result in significant financial burden for families with members who have chronic diseases such as asthma.35–37
Further, the low-income patients in our sample constituted 69% of the uninsured and 24% of the privately insured. These patients likely represent the working poor, who are charged a significant amount for asthma care but who have a limited ability to pay. For instance, a $1,502 charge for a single person at 200% of the FPL would represent 7% of their annual income in 2008.38 This is of particular concern because asthma disproportionately affects low-income populations.7 In fact, low-income families and those who are on high-deductible plans have been shown to forego or delay care because of cost and to feel as if they had little control over costs in clinical encounters.39,40 The burden of these charges can be mitigated by hospitals’ charity care provided to very-low-income patients without insurance.41,42 However, this practice is limited to the poorest patients and cannot be guaranteed upon arrival.42 Even if patients end up paying only a portion of their charges, the financial repercussions for middle or lower-income families are often still severe.
The variability in possible charges poses additional challenges to any patient attempting to control their health care costs for asthma. Not knowing and not being able to determine cost of care for an episode of asthma can discourage care-seeking and burden those who come to the ED with an urgent asthma exacerbation and thus do not have the ability to spend time determining the lowest-cost location.40,43 Though this variability makes it hard for physicians to estimate a patient’s charges for asthma upon inquiry, knowledge of this variability can be shared with patients to prepare them for the large range in possible bills they could face.
Consistent with previous studies, our results indicated an increase in ED charges with increasing age.5,44 This was expected due to age-associated comorbidities such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that are likely to complicate disease management and thus increase charges.45,46 Interestingly, charges did not vary significantly by insurance coverage. This trend may be a consequence of hospital charge masters, which provide common charges for billing of all patients. These charge masters often list inflated prices in anticipation of negotiated discounts with insurance companies.47,48 Even if Medicare, which had the highest mean charge of the insurance groups, however, did have a statistically significant higher charge, it would not be surprising given that Medicare patients are older and, on the whole, sicker than patients in other insurance groups and may require more intensive care, even if discharged.
This study had several limitations associated with the nature of the MEPS survey. First, patient report of whether they were insured under a particular plan at any point during the year served as a crude measure of insurance status at the time of the ED visit. It is plausible that a patient who reported being uninsured was in fact insured during the asthma-related ED visit. However cross-classification by insurance status and payment source in our analysis indicated few discrepancies between the two variables. For example, one would expect patients insured by Medicare and Medicaid [End Page 401] to have very few out-of-pocket payments if they were in fact insured by Medicare and Medicaid for most of the year. Our data did in fact show that these patients had few out-of-pocket payments, suggesting that the health insurance variable in the MEPS survey often corresponded to insurance status at the time of visit.
Second, the data from MEPS used in this study largely rely on direct survey of patients, which may be inaccurate. However, these limitations are addressed in part by the Medical Provider Component, which validates household reporting of medical use and expenditures. Furthermore, we think the use of MEPS is still suitable in our analysis due to its utilization in previous studies that considered variables similar to those used in this study in order to analyze trends in asthma28,49 and other conditions.50,51
Another potential limitation is that patients who have respiratory conditions other than asthma may have more complications or require more treatment in the ED and as a result, incur higher charges. We address this concern by limiting our analysis to visits that were discharged from the ED so that visits with severe comorbidities leading to hospitalization are not included in the analysis. Furthermore, we conducted analyses by age group, which is closely associated with comorbidities. Charge variations among patients of different insurance status even within age groups suggested that disparities in charges extend beyond more expensive management for patients with comorbidities.
On average, a patient visiting the ED as an outpatient will be charged $1,502 for treatment of asthma, though recorded charges varied from $19 to $12,601. Uninsured patients and those on high-deductible private health plans are especially affected by these charges, and low-income patients who are disproportionately affected by asthma face significant challenges to paying such an ED bill. Further research is warranted on the sources of variability in ED charges for asthma patients and their impact on the finances and health of patients with asthma.
The authors are affiliated with the University of Minnesota School of Medicine, Twin Cities, Minnesota [TW]; the Ecologic Institute, San Mateo, California [TS]; and the Department of Emergency Medicine, University of California, San Francisco [JB, RYH].
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2011 National Health Interview Survey Data (Table 4-1: Current asthma prevalence percent’s by age). Atlanta, GA: CDC, 2012. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/asthma/nhis/2011/table4-1.htm.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2011 National Health Interview Survey Data (Table 3-1: Current Asthma Population Estimates—in thousands by Age, United States). Atlanta, GA: CDC, 2012. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/asthma/nhis/2011/table3-1.htm.
4. Ginde AA, Espinola JA, Camargo CA Jr. Improved overall trends but persistent racial disparities in emergency department visits for acute asthma, 1993–2005. J Allergy Clin immunol. 2008 Aug;122(2):313–8. Epub 2008 Jun 5. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2008.04.024; PMid:18538382 PMCid:PMC3538825
5. Moorman JE, Rudd RA, Johnson CA, et al. National surveillance for asthma—United States, 1980–2004. MMWR Surveill Summ. 2007 Oct 19;56(8):1–54. PMid:17947969
6. Sawicki GS, Vilk Y, Schatz M, et al. Uncontrolled asthma in a commercially insured population from 2002 to 2007: trends, predictors, and costs. J Asthma. 2010 Jun;47(5):574–80. http://dx.doi.org/10.3109/02770901003792841; PMid:20560831 [End Page 402]
7. Stingone JA, Claudio L. Disparities in the use of urgent health care services among asthmatic children. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2006 Aug;97(2):244–50. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1081-1206(10)60021-X
8. Jones R, Lin S, Munsie JP, et al. Racial/ethnic differences in asthma-related emergency department visits and hospitalizations among children with wheeze in Buffalo, New York. J Asthma. 2008 Dec;45(10):916–22. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02770900802395488; PMid:19085583
9. Erickson SE, Iribarren C, Tolstykh IV, et al. Effect of race on asthma management and outcomes in a large, integrated managed care organization. Arch Intern Med. 2007 Sep 24;167(17):1846–52. http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/archinte.167.17.1846; PMid:17893305
10. Griswold SK, Nordstrom CR, Clark S, et al. Asthma exacerbations in North American adults: who are the “frequent fliers” in the emergency department? Chest. 2005 May;127(5):1579–86. http://dx.doi.org/10.1378/chest.127.5.1579; PMid:15888831
11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Early release of selected estimates based on data from the 2010 National Health Interview Survey. Atlanta, GA: CDC, 2011. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhis/released201106.htm-1.
12. Apter AJ, Reisine ST, Kennedy DG, et al. Demographic predictors of asthma treatment site: outpatient, inpatient, or emergency department. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 1997 Oct;79(4):353–61. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1081-1206(10)63028-1
13. Tang N, Stein J, Hsia RY, et al. Trends and characteristics of U.S. emergency department visits, 1997–2007. JAMA. 2010 Aug 11;304(6):664–70. http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jama.2010.1112; PMid:20699458 PMCid:PMC3123697
14. Wright BJ, Carlson MJ, Edlund T, et al. The impact of increased cost sharing on Medicaid enrollees. Health Aff (Millwood). 2005 Jul–Aug;24(4):1106–16. http://dx.doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.24.4.1106; PMid:16012151
15. Wayne A. Obama blocks California from charging for care in Medicaid. New York, NY: Bloomberg (web site), 2012 Feb 6. Available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-02-06/california-can-t-charge-medicaid-patients-for-hospital-care-u-s-says.html.
17. Caldwell N, Srebotnjak T, Wang T, et al. “How much will i get charged for this?” Patient charges for the top ten diagnoses in the emergency department. PLoS One. 2013;8(2): e55491. Epub 2013 Feb 27. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0055491; PMid:23460786 PMCid:PMC3584078
18. Mannino DM, Homa DM, Akinbami LJ, et al. Surveillance for asthma—United States, 1980–1999. MMWR Surveill Summ. 2002 Mar 29;51(1):1–13.
19. Chabra A, Chavez GF, Adams EJ, et al. Characteristics of children having multiple Medicaid-paid asthma hospitalizations. Matern Child Health J. 1998 Dec;2(4):223–9. http://dx.doi.org/10.1023/A:1022307423236; PMid:10728279
20. Gupta RS, Bewtra M, Prosser LA, et al. Predictors of hospital charges for children admitted with asthma. Ambul Pediatr. 2006 Jan–Feb;6(1):15–20. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ambp.2005.07.001; PMid:16443178
21. Macy ML, Stanley RM, Sasson C, et al. High turnover stays for pediatric asthma in the United States: analysis of the 2006 Kids’ Inpatient Database. Med Care. 2010 Sep;48(9):827–33. http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/MLR.0b013e3181f2595e; PMid:20706158
22. Todd J, Armon C, Griggs A, et al. Increased rates of morbidity, mortality, and charges [End Page 403] for hospitalized children with public or no health insurance as compared with children with private insurance in Colorado and the United States. Pediatrics. 2006 Aug;118(2):577–85. http://dx.doi.org/10.1542/peds.2006-0162; PMid:16882810
23. Hsia RY, MacIsaac D, Baker L. Decreasing reimbursements for outpatient emergency department visits across payer groups from 1996 to 2004. Ann Emerg Med. 2008 Mar;51(3):265–74. Epub 2007 Nov 13. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.annemergmed.2007.08.009; PMid:17997503
24. The Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation. 2012 employer health benefits. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2012.
25. Innes G, Grafstein E, McGrogan J. Do emergency physicians know the costs of medical care? CJEM. 2000 Apr;2(2):95–102. PMid:17637131
26. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Medical expenditure panel survey: survey background. Rockville, MD: Agency for Health care Research and Quality, 2009. Available at: http://www.meps.ahrq.gov/mepsweb/about_meps/survey_back.jsp.
27. Stagnitti MN, Beauregard K, Solis A. Design, methods, and field results of the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey Medical Provider Component (MEPS MPC)—2006 calendar year data. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2008.
28. Sullivan PW, Ghushchyan VH, Slejko JF, et al. The burden of adult asthma in the United States: evidence from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2011 Feb;127(2):363–9. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2010.10.042; PMid:21281868
29. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Consumer Price Index (CPI): indexes and annual percent changes from 1913 to present. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, 2011.
30. Smith DH, Malone DC, Lawson KA, et al. A national estimate of the economic costs of asthma. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 1997 Sep;156(3 Pt 1):787–93. http://dx.doi.org/10.1164/ajrccm.156.3.9611072; PMid:9309994
32. Paez KA, Zhao L, Hwang W. Rising out-of-pocket spending for chronic conditions: a ten-year trend. Health Aff (Millwood). 2009 Jan–Feb;28(1):15–25. http://dx.doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.28.1.15; PMid:19124848
33. Adams RJ, Smith BJ, Ruffin RE. Factors associated with hospital admissions and repeat emergency department visits for adults with asthma. Thorax. 2000 Jul;55(7):566–73. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/thorax.55.7.566; PMid:10856316 PMCid:PMC1745791
34. DeNavas-Walt C, Proctor BD, Smith JC. Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States: 2011. Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Commerce, 2012.
36. Ortega AN, Belanger KD, Paltiel AD, et al. Use of health services by insurance status among children with asthma. Med Care. 2001 Oct;39(10):1065–74. http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/00005650-200110000-00004; PMid:11567169
37. Galbraith AA, Ross-Degnan D, Soumerai SB, et al. Nearly half of families in high-deductible health plans whose members have chronic conditions face substantial financial burden. Health Aff (Millwood). 2011 Feb;30(2):322–31. http://dx.doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.2010.0584; PMid:21289354 [End Page 404]
38. U. S. Department of Commerce. Poverty Thresholds 2008. Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Commerce, 2008. Available at: http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/threshld/thresh08.html.
39. Kullgren JT, Galbraith AA, Hinrichsen VL, et al. Health care use and decision making among lower-income families in high-deductible health plans. Arch Intern Med. 2010 Nov 22;170(21):1918–25. http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/archinternmed.2010.428; PMid:21098352
40. Lieu TA, Solomon JL, Sabin JE, et al. Consumer awareness and strategies among families with high-deductible health plans. J Gen Intern Med. 2010 Mar;25(3):249–54. Epub 2009 Dec 22. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11606-009-1184-5; PMid:20033623 PMCid:PMC2839340
41. Reinhardt UE. What hospitals charge the uninsured. New York, NY: The New York Times. 2013 Mar 15. Available at: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/15/what-hospitals-charge-the-uninsured/.
43. The Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation. National survey of enrollees in consumer-directed health plans. Menlo Park, CA: The Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation, 2006.
44. Tsai CL, Lee WY, Hanania NA, et al. Age-related differences in clinical outcomes for acute asthma in the United States, 2006–2008. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2012 May;129(5):1252–8. Epub 2012 Mar 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2012.01.061; PMid:22385630
48. McConnell KJ, Gray D, Lindrooth RC. The financing of hospital-based emergency departments. J Health Care Finance. 2007 Summer;33(4):31–52. PMid:19172961
49. Wu CH, Erickson SR. The association between asthma and absenteeism among working adults in the United States: results from the 2008 medical expenditure panel survey. J Asthma. 2012 Sep;49(7):757–64. http://dx.doi.org/10.3109/02770903.2012.709292; PMid:22891960
50. Bernard DS, Farr SL, Fang Z. National estimates of out-of-pocket health care expenditure burdens among nonelderly adults with cancer: 2001 to 2008. J Clin Oncol. 2011 Jul 10;29(20):2821–6. Epub 2011 May 31. http://dx.doi.org/10.1200/JCO.2010.33.0522; PMid:21632508 PMCid:PMC3139395