BOISE -- While intended to cut emergency room visits through preventative and primary care, some hospitals are claiming packed emergency rooms since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) took full effect in January.

For example, a recent report from Louisville, Kentucky said a hospital there has converted waiting rooms into exam rooms because their ER is overflowing. That hospital, Norton Hospital, says its had 100 more patients each month, equating to a 12 percent spike in 2014.

KTVB asked Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke's if that same spike is playing out in Idaho.
Saint Alphonsus has seen slow and steady growth in the emergency department and clinics, but the medical director said it's too early to say if there is any correlation with the ACA.

At Saint Alphonsus, we've had a slow and steady growth in our patient population both in our emergency room, as well as in our clinics, said Dr. Steven D. Brown, Saint Alphonsus Health System Chief Medical Officer.

At Saint Alphonsus, there are now more than 12,000 patients with health insurance exchange plans associated exclusively with that health system.

While that would seem to point to an immediate patient increase, the medical director says there hasn't been a huge rush on the system. A couple reasons could be: Those people haven't needed medical care in the first months of the year, and some of those people may have already been insured before the exchange.

As for other states seeing sharp increases in ER visits, Brown says the explanation could be something we don't have in Idaho: Medicaid expansion.

As an example, in those states that have had an increase in Medicaid enrollment, because they authorized an expansion of Medicaid, they may be seeing increased numbers due to that, Brown said.

Additionally, he says that over time, the idea with the ACA is to bring emergency room volume down. He says time will tell how the newly-insured patients will utilize services.

Theoretically, such a system would shift volume from the emergency room into a clinic setting, which would be more efficient, less costly, and better for the patients, Brown said.

Saint Alphonsus says it has increased its services in anticipation of an increase in patients due to the ACA. Brown believes an increase in patients will be noticeable at some point. He says 76,000 Idahoans enrolled in the exchange, twice what was expected.

St. Luke's did not respond to requests for information about patient volume this week.

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