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J Rural Health. 2007 Summer;23(3):258-63.

Estimating uncompensated care charges at rural hospital emergency departments.

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Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Columbia, SC, USA.



Rural hospitals face multiple financial burdens. Due to federal law, emergency departments (ED) provide a gateway for uninsured and self-pay patients to gain access to treatment. It is unknown how much uncompensated care in rural hospitals is due to ED visits.


To develop a national estimate of uncompensated care from patients utilizing the ED in rural hospitals.


Clinical data from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey-ED (NHAMCS-ED) from 1999 and 2000 were linked to billing data from South Carolina. National estimates of utilization and charges were calculated, with rurality and self-pay status being the variables of focus.


Applying South Carolina billing data to national clinical data yields a national estimate for 1999-2000 of nearly $441 billion in charges being generated through emergency departments, with self-pay patients representing 9.0% of total charges. Rural self-pay patients accounted for an estimated $3.5 billion in charges in 1999 and $5.3 billion in 2000. These charges may represent a total financial burden of more than $4 billion to rural hospitals.


Efforts should be made to reduce the uncompensated care burden on rural hospitals to ensure their viability. These efforts may include Medicaid/SCHIP expansions, FQHCs or RHCs, Critical Access Hospital Designation, or other indigent care programs that would reduce the need for self-pay patients to utilize EDs.

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