Aurora hospitals, nonprofit aim to add clarity on cost differences for urgent care, standalone ERs


AURORA | After struggling with vertigo for several weeks, Rich McLean’s friend had had enough.

So McLean, who runs a social justice ministry at St. Therese Catholic Church in north Aurora and is on the board of Aurora Health Access, said the woman sought medical care at what she assumed was the most-appropriate place, the emergency room.

“The first thought was, ‘Well, can you take me to the ER?’” McLean said. “She didn’t think of urgent care because she wasn’t aware of it.”

Had she been aware, the woman could have saved about $2,000, McLean said. Urgent care likely would have charged her about $150 — the tab at the ER was close to $2,300.

Aurora Health Access, a local nonprofit aimed at helping people get health care, is launching a campaign to better explain the difference between freestanding emergency rooms and urgent care clinics, a difference that regularly amounts to major cash for patients.

Denise Denton, executive director of AHA, said consumers often don’t know the difference between an urgent care facility and an ER, a problem that is becoming especially pronounced with the growth of freestanding ERs. Those facilities may be run by a hospital group, but they aren’t located on a typical hospital campus and Denton said consumers often don’t know what they really are.

The biggest difference, Denton said, is that freestanding ERs have to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they must always have a doctor on hand. Urgent care facilities don’t always have a doctor and in many cases don’t have the resources to treat many of the ailments that an ER can.

Another difference Denton said consumers might not be aware of: many freestanding ERs — including two of the four in Aurora — don’t accept Medicare or Medicaid, which could leave patients who rely on those services with a hefty bill.

At AHA’s community meetings, Denton said there has been a lot of talk from consumers who didn’t realize how pricey an ER visit could be, and didn’t realize that they could get the care they needed much cheaper at an urgent care facility.

UCHealth operates a freestanding ER near East Mississippi Avenue and South Chambers Road in addition to its ER at University of Colorado Hospital at the Anschutz Medical Campus.

Dan Weaver, a spokesman for UCHealth, said the hospital group has been working with AHA to explain to patients what types of conditions need a primary care physician, what calls for an urgent care and what calls for an emergency room visit.

The issue has also got the attention of state lawmakers. Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, is sponsoring a bill this legislative session that would require freestanding ERs to clearly post that they are not an urgent care facility and that they charge emergency room rates.

“Often people go to standalone emergency rooms thinking they are urgent cares facilities. Thus, they are charged exorbitant rates for simple procedures,” McCann said on her website.

For now, AHA is distributing fact sheets explaining the differences.

In general, Denton said if a patient is not at risk of losing their life or a limb, they should start with their primary care doctor. If they can’t get through to them, urgent care is probably a good place to start.

If it’s not a serious emergency, Denton said patients should avoid the ER.

“Its gonna be their wallet that is going to be impacted,” she said.