A 58-year-old Maryland woman breaks her ankle, develops a blood clot and, unable to find a doctor to monitor her blood-thinning drug, winds up in an emergency room 30 times in six months. A 55-year-old Mississippi man with severe hypertension and kidney disease is repeatedly hospitalized for worsening heart and kidney failure; doctors don’t know that his utilities have been disconnected, leaving him without air conditioning or a refrigerator in the sweltering summer heat. A 42-year-old morbidly obese woman with severe cardiovascular problems and bipolar disorder spends more than 300 days in a Michigan hospital and nursing home because she can’t afford a special bed or arrange services that would enable her to live at home.
These patients are among the 1 percent whose ranks no one wants to join: the costly cohort battling multiple chronic illnesses who consumed 21 percent of the nearly $1.3 trillion Americans spent on health care in 2010, at a cost of nearly $88,000 per person. Five percent of patients accounted for 50 percent of all health-care expenditures. By contrast, the bottom 50 percent of patients accounted for just 2.8 percent of spending that year, according to a recent report by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
Sometimes known as super-utilizers, high-frequency patients or frequent fliers, these patients typically suffer from heart failure, diabetes and kidney disease, along with a significant psychiatric problem. Some are Medicare patients unable to afford the many drugs needed to manage their chronic health problems. Others are younger “dual eligibles” who qualify for Medicare and Medicaid and who often bounce from emergency room to emergency room, struggling with substance abuse, homelessness and related medical conditions. Still others have private health insurance.
Nearly all wind up in emergency rooms because they have enormous difficulty navigating the increasingly fragmented, complicated and inflexible health-care system. Because of lack of alternatives or force of habit, they use hospitals, often several in the same city, for care that could be provided far more cheaply and effectively in outpatient settings. Many suffer from the phenomenon known as “extreme uncoordinated care.”
In the past few years, efforts to lower costs and improve care have proliferated. In Ann Arbor, Mich., two programs at the University of Michigan Health System assign specialized case managers to super-users, some of whom have been in the ER more than 100 times in a year. In a largely rural swath of central Pennsylvania, Geisinger Health System enrolls elderly Medicare patients in its Proven Health Navigator program, calling them after they leave the hospital and providing heart failure patients with scales that transmit data to nurses: Sudden weight gain can signal a problem. In the Washington area, a program sponsored by Medical Mall Health Services — a program founded by civil rights activist and physician Aaron Shirley that targets medically underserved patients —
provides home visits and helps arrange services for newly discharged patients.