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By Linda Carroll

Emergency rooms — which can cost patients thousands of dollars each visit — have become the primary source of medical care for the uninsured and people with chronic illnesses. 

A Minnesota health care provider is testing a new program in the hopes of reducing ER admissions and keeping people healthier: they’re sending paramedics on house calls to some of the area’s sickest patients who might otherwise end up in the ER. 

The need for such out-of-the-box solutions is clear. In the last year, one in five Americans went to the ER at least once for an estimated 130 million visits. The cost of all those ER visits is staggering, considering that the price for treating some of the most common conditions can range from an average of $750 all the way up to $73,000.

“We don’t screen for insurance at the door,” said Dr. Joey Duren, an emergency physician with North Memorial Healthcare System in Minnesota. “So in our country now, a big thing is that the emergency department is a safety net for people who don’t have insurance.”

Patients with chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes can spiral out of control without regular monitoring and land in the ER multiple times in a single year. The number of repeat patients is often staggering; some of whom visit dozens of times each month, according to North Memorial's chief medical officer, Dr. Kevin Croston.

“What’s really the biggest cost in health care are the chronic conditions where there are readmissions to the emergency department,” Duren said. “We realized we needed to create care that stopped that.”

That’s where house calls from the community paramedics came in. Since the program began last October paramedics have made more than 1,000 home visits, at a fraction of the cost for a trip to the ER. Although North Memorial doesn't have data yet on the savings, officials believe the program will help reduce admissions.

“The role of this community paramedic is helping people get on top of their chronic disease processes so they aren’t getting so sick that they need to come to us in the emergency department,” Duren explained. “We’re controlling their diseases so they can be handled in an outpatient setting versus having to come here or be admitted to the hospital for multiple days because they’ve gotten so far behind in their insulin for their diabetes or their COPD has gotten out of control.”

Chris Anderson is among the first group of paramedics who were specially trained to make house calls. He quickly recognized the value of those home visits.

“It’s when you get to spend more time with [patients], you get to find out what’s going on, what’s truly bothering them, what they need the most help with,” Anderson said.

The house calls have been a life-saver for folks like 65-year-old Victoria Denbleyker, who suffers from multiple, hard-to-manage chronic conditions, like diabetes, congestive heart failure, and rheumatoid arthritis—problems that used to routinely send her to the ER.

With doctors, Denbleyker said, “you don’t have that much time to really talk to them, even if you get the maximum amount of time, which is half an hour. Sometimes there are too many things going on. “

Without consistent monitoring, Denbleyker’s condition can rapidly descend into the danger zone.

“My system can change in a heartbeat,” she said. “I never know what is coming next. So the fact that they know what is going on with me means a lot.”

The Minnesota project started last October. To figure out which patients might benefit from the program, the hospital searched for anyone who had used the ER nine or more times in a year.

Nine was “the number we had to land on for our own survival mode,” said North Memorial's Croston.

Think that’s a lot?

“We’ve had some patients that were here 23 times in a month,” he said.

Croston said, “readmission rates are down for us as a health system, and that’s largely due to the fact that we’re intervening once they leave the hospital or once they leave the emergency department.”

Barb Andrews, who runs the program, says it’s a new way of thinking about health care.

“It gives us, as paramedics, an opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive,” she said. “The community paramedics empower [patients] to be able to manage their own health better in the home.”

And ultimately, she said, that can “keep them out of the hospital, keep them out of the nursing home.”