Canton Repository

September 28, 2005

Doctors to lawmakers: Help!

By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON — The growing demand on hospital emergency rooms has absorbed any extra capacity, compromising treatment in a disaster and necessitating a federal solution, physicians who rallied here Tuesday said.

“The problem is the surge capacity when you have crises going on such as the hurricanes recently,” said Dr. David Packo, a Stark County area physician who led a contingent of 122 doctors from Ohio to the event. “There’s little ability to be able to respond to that right now because the capacity is simply not there anymore.”

Visits to emergency rooms grew to 114 million in 2003, up 26 percent from 90 million in 1992, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians. During the same period, the number of emergency rooms fell by 14 percent.

“What we’re really seeing is the whole structure of emergency medicine and delivering emergency care crumbling a little bit over the last decade,” said Packo, director of the emergency department at Massillon Community Hospital.

The American College of Emergency Physicians, which is meeting in Washington and sponsored the rally, blames a reduction in hospital beds, a shortage of specialists and other staff, and a growing elderly population for the overcrowding.

The organization is urging lawmakers to support legislation introduced by Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., which would provide federal aid to emergency rooms and give physicians who provide emergency treatment protection from lawsuits. So far, only one lawmaker, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, has signed up as a co-sponsor.

The physicians, who turned the west lawn of the Capitol into a sea of white coats, pointed out that while hospitals are required to provide emergency care to anyone regardless of ability to pay, hospitals do not receive reimbursement from the government.

“We agree with that mandate,” said Dr. Kevin Klauer of Jackson Township, another emergency physician. “We want to see all patients. The difficulty is that when it’s an unfunded mandate, then that burden is shifted to the emergency departments.”

Overcrowded emergency rooms also have affected the quality of patient care and delayed treatment, physicians said.

When emergency rooms are full, incoming ambulances are redirected to other more distant hospitals where there is excess capacity in a practice referred to as “diversion.”

Dr. David Scott, who works in the emergency room at Massillon Community Hospital, said incoming patients were diverted from that hospital as recently as a few weeks ago.

“We’re trying to highlight how important this is,” he said. “If the emergency rooms close for a day, how many people die? It’s an incredibly important system.”

Many of the doctors hoped to meet with their local lawmakers to urge them to support Gordon’s bill or address the problem in other ways.

Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, is scheduled to meet with the Ohio doctors this afternoon. Regula oversees health spending for the powerful House Appropriations Committee.