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Tenn. Rep. Black says law prohibiting ERs from turning patients away a 'burden'

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MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (OSBORNE)  --  Tennessee Congressional Rep. Diane Black says federal law should be amended to give Emergency Room doctors the freedom to turn patients away.

In 1986, Congress passed regulations requiring ERs to treat everyone, even if they can’t pay.

In a recent appearance on MSNBC, Black called that federal law a “burden.”  She said practitioners should be the ones to decide if the ER is the “proper place” for treatment.

Chicago ER physician Howie Mell speaks for the 31,000 member American College of Emergency Physicians. Mell says Black’s comments reflect a common misconception that ERs are being overwhelmed by indigent patients seeking routine care.

Dr. Mell says studies suggest 96 percent of ER patients do require immediate care. But he also says many of those patients wouldn’t need emergency treatment if they’d had routine medical care.

“You talk to them about, ‘Well, how did it get here?’ and (they tell you) ‘Yeah, I used to have a doctor and I used to be on medicine but I don’t have one anymore...I don't have medicine anymore.’”

Dr. Mell notes that the 1980s era law requiring ER care came on the heels of revelations that hospitals were “dumping” patients; refusing care to those who couldn’t pay.

“I don’t think anyone wants to go back to a time -- well, maybe the Congresswoman does – but nobody else wants to go back to a time where the first question isn’t ‘How can I help you?’ but ‘How are you going to pay?’”

Dr. Mell says the data also does not support the notion that hospital budgets are being pushed into the red by ER patients who can't pay. He says that ER expenditures account for about four percent of the nation's health care costs.