Release: Community Health Centers Save Lives and Money

WASHINGTON, May 11 - Non-emergency visits to hospital emergency rooms cost taxpayers billions of dollars a year, money that could be saved by expanding community health centers and other primary health care services, according to testimony at a Senate hearing today.

A new Government Accountability Office study conservatively estimated that 8 percent of emergency room visits are not urgent. In fact, as many as half the trips to ERs may be unnecessary, one expert testified.

If patients with non-urgent symptoms were treated at community health centers instead of hospital emergency rooms, the potential savings range from $6 billion to $40 billion per year, according to Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Primary Health and Aging Subcommittee.

Dr. Dana Kraus, a family practice physician from Northern Counties Health Care, testified at the hearing that a coordinated-care program in the St. Johnsbury area reduced emergency room use and hospital admissions.

"Community health centers are an excellent model for bringing primary care to communities throughout the nation in a high-quality, cost-effective way," Sanders said.

A Sanders provision in the health care reform law enacted last year provided $11 billion for a dramatic expansion of Federally Qualified Health Centers, locally-run organizations which provide primary care, dental care, low-cost prescription drugs and mental health counseling.

George Washington University researchers say billions of dollars in savings will result from that investment in community health centers. The additional federal funds will double, to about 40 million people, the number of patients served by health centers. By providing lower-cost care and preventing unnecessary emergency care, more than $180 billion will be saved over the next 10 years, the study found.

In Vermont, more than 110,000 people now receive care at community health centers. In the past nine years, Vermont has gone from two centers operating at six sites to eight centers operating 40 sites located in areas that were previously designated as having too few primary health care services.