It's eight o'clock on a warm and sultry Southern California Friday evening, and you suddenly have chest pains. Not knowing whether it's indigestion, or maybe a heart attack, you have your spouse drive you the half-mile to the local emergency room. You expect prompt care, for after all, this is America, with the finest medical care in the world, right?
As you step through the ER doors, you gaze over a sea of faces, and the buzz of a strange language assails your ears. Combined with the cries of numerous babies, and children seemingly running loose all over, you're disoriented. Occasionally you hear a word or two of English, but you can discern most of what you are hearing is Spanish in several dialects, from what you remember from high school studies.
You make your way to the desk and a woman asks you what you're there for, takes your insurance information, and tells you you will have to wait your turn to see the triage nurse. You tell her the pain in your chest is getting worse, and she patiently explains she will try to have you seen as soon as possible, but the ER is overloaded tonight, and every night, and they're doing the best they can to move patients along with whatever priority triage can establish. You can't find a seat, and find yourself feeling faint and slowly crumple to the floor near the desk. Fortunately, this prompts a quick response and you're wheeled into the ER area where you're assessed and moved to the front of the "line" where it is determined that indeed, you have had a coronary event.
Is this an unusual case? No, not at all. Why? Because our emergency rooms and hospitals are flooded with illegal immigrants and others seeking free medical care at all hours of the night and day, especially at hours when the free community clinics are closed. Hospitals are bound by law not to turn them away regardless of how minimal their issues are, and it clogs the system so badly, that persons having true medical emergencies are often relegated to hallways or secondary care areas due to lack of space and personnel. In some cases, gravely ill people die because people with minor issues jam the ER's and triage is overwhelmed. When seconds count and you have dozens if not a hundred people to deal with, it's hard to blame triage and not the system that allows this to continue.
How mindless and simple are the issues that bring people to the ER when the care is free? A child puts his shoes on the wrong feet and then complains his feet hurt, so his family brings him to the ER to be examined. That's a fact! Minor colds, scrapes and abrasions that can be solved with band-aids at home come to the ER and jam it for hours. A 10 year old with a runny nose goes to the ER. We're not talking asthma, allergies or trauma here. Plain old home care things or things that could be taken care of by a family doctor. But no, since it's free, go to the ER and let the taxpayer pay for it. Or, in many cases, let the hospital absorb the costs and when they start to fail and close the doors, everyone can lament the loss of another healthcare facility and loss of jobs.
No one begrudges emergency healthcare for the truly ill who need emergency care, no matter who they are. But care for free seems to give a whole new meaning to "emergency" to people who don't have to pay for those services and in doing so, endanger the lives and well-being of others who direly need them.