As Obamacare marches onward, its opponents are still endeavoring to stop its advance and send it packing. Of course, the opponents need to provide an alternative system. Interestingly, certain Republicans such as Rick Perry and Jim DeMint have claimed that uninsured Americans are better off relying on the emergency room for treatment. While the battle over Obamacare is largely ideological, the viability of using the emergency room would seem to be an objective matter.
On the positive side, anyone can go to the emergency room and hospitals cannot refuse to treat people with legitimate medical needs—even people who lack insurance or cannot pay.
However, there are numerous problems with the uninsured (or even the insured) relying on the emergency room. The first is the matter of cost. The emergency room is generally more expensive than the non-emergency options. It is certainly more expensive that routine preventative care that can keep a person out of the emergency room. The high costs are problematic because of the burden on the uninsured (medical bills is a leading cause of bankruptcy in America) and also because when the uninsured cannot pay, the cost is passed on to the rest of us (most often in the form of higher health insurance premiums). Thus, relying on the emergency room to treat the uninsured places a heavy burden on everyone and is actually a form of highly inefficient socialism in which those with insurance pay for needlessly expensive treatment for the uninsured. From a purely economic standpoint, if we are going to have medical socialism, we should at least go with the more economically efficient version.
The second is the matter of preventative medicine and ongoing treatments, such as routine checkups and dialysis. The emergency room hardly seems to be set for these medical matters, although people who are unable to avail themselves of them stand a significant chance of ending up in the emergency room, thus taking us back to the first problem. As such, the emergency room option does not seem to be a viable alternative to Obamacare. This is not to say that Obamacare is the only option or even a good option—just that it is better than the emergency-room-for-the-uninsured option.
The third is the matter of compassion. While hospitals cannot deny people necessary medical care, such care is certainly not charity: either the patient must pay or the cost is passed on to the rest of us. As such, relying on the emergency room as a matter of social policy is essentially saying to people that they can get treatment, provided that it is an emergency and that either the patient can pay or the cost can be passed on to everyone else. It is generally agreed that we should collectively protect each other from terrorism, foreign enemies, and our own criminals. This same concern should also extend to protecting each other from disease and injury. After all, whether Sally is dead because of cancer, a criminal’s bullet or a terrorist’s bomb, she is still dead. So, if we can have a huge collective defense against these other threats, we surely can have a developed collective defense against medical threats—one that is better than the emergency room.