Over the last several years, we have listened to politicians from both sides of the aisle debate a variety of healthcare issues: what are the best ways to lower costs, how will we pay for it, should insurance be mandatory, etc. And though President Obama managed to do what others tried and failed—pass comprehensive healthcare reform—it seems that this will always be a hot political and social issue.
Lost in these often heated discussions, however, is the fact that emergency rooms nationwide are disappearing. A study by the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that, on average, about 89 ERs close each year in non-rural areas. The ERs aren’t closing because there isn’t a need; it’s just the opposite: from 1990 to 2009, emergency room visits increased by 35-percent while 27 percent of them closed.
For many, the emergency room is the first place they go when they feel ill. It is there that many life threatening illnesses are detected and treatment begun. Most of us realize that using emergency rooms in place of a primary care physician drives up hospital costs for all of us. But, we also realize that there are far too many Americans who don’t have access to a private doctor; the ER is their only source of medical treatment.
Even with President Obama’s healthcare reform signed into law, it will be a long before we see the effects of it and see a decline in ER visits. Until that happens, it must become a priority—on a local and national level—to reduce ER closures. Hospitals should be regulated, even the for-profit ones, and be prevented from closing emergency rooms in already underserved communities. The federal government should fund hospitals and emergency rooms in urban areas, much like they do in rural areas, to ensure no more ERs are closed. The health needs of urbanites are no less important than those of individuals living in rural areas and federal funding should reflect that.
If emergency rooms continue to close while the demand for them goes up, we will find ourselves in the midst of a public health crisis. Many individuals, most of whom will be poor and either Black or Latino, will suffer—and even die—from illnesses that could be treated.
As politicians continue to the healthcare debate, let’s hope that they fold this important issue into the discussion and present solutions that will prevent the situation from growing more serious.
(Judge Greg Mathis is vice president of Rainbow PUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)