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How Oregon Is Getting ‘Frequent Flyers’ Out Of Hospital ERs

Forty-year-old Jeremie Seals has had a tough life. He left home at 14, and he says, his health isn’t good. He had a heart attack when he was 35, he has congestive heart failure and nerve pain in his legs “real bad.”

“Long story short: I’m terminal,” he says matter-of-factly.

Seals is unwilling to divulge too much about his past. But over the years, he says his health has deteriorated to such a degree, he can no longer hold a job. By 2011, he was sleeping in his car, and that’s when his medical problems started having a big financial impact. 

“I basically lived at the emergency department,” he said. “Ever since I’d had a heart attack, anytime my chest hurt, I’d either call the ambulance or go up to the hospital. and I think it was also out of desperation to just get out of my car and off the street.”

That year, he visited the emergency department at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland 15 times and was admitted to the hospital 11 times.

And that’s what brought him to the attention of one of Oregon’s new coordinated care organizations (CCOs). As part of the nation’s health care overhaul, Oregon has been given permission to conduct its own experiments. One way it’s trying to reduce Medicaid costs is to encourage people who constantly turn up at the Emergency Department – so-called ‘frequent flyers’ like Seals – to get their health care from regular doctors instead. 

Lisa Pearlstein of Health Share of Oregon, one of the CCOs, remembers her first meeting with Seals in 2011, when she began to guide him through the medical maze: “He’s sitting in a chair and complaining about his feet being wet. And I said, ‘Why are your feet wet?’ And he said, ‘I have holes in my shoes.’ And I said, ‘Would you like a new pair of shoes?’ And so I ended up getting him a new pair of shoes that day. And so we connected over those shoes.” 

Seals remembers it well: “Not only did she get me boots, but she got me a pillow and she got me a really awesome sleeping bag.” 

2011: 15 ER Visits, 2012: 4

Oregon’s health care experiment allows Pearlstein to help Seals and other Medicaid patients much like a family member might. She helped him schedule doctor appointments, and went with him to make sure he understood what he had to do. She also helped him get dialysis and take his medications correctly. 

And importantly, she helped him with more everyday needs. 

She made sure he had passes for the local community center — so he could shower. Eventually, she helped him negotiate a spot in adult foster care so he now has a roof over his head. 

They built a rapport and now he trusts her, Seals says. But it didn’t come easily. “I understood that Lisa was trying to help me. But at the same time I had a real hard time trusting anybody in the medical field.” But, he says, Pearlstein helped him to be more communicative with his doctor and helped him explain his needs calmly and clearly.

His doctor, Christina Milano, says she’s seen an amazing change: “When he has the resources available to him and when housing had stabilized for him, he is actually wanting to be adherent to the medication.”

With the intervention of Pearlstein and others, Seals’ ER visits dropped from 15 in 2011 to 4 in 2012. His hospital stays went from 11 to four in the same time period. 

And that’s how the state can improve care and save money. 

Rebecca Ramsey of CareOregon, a nonprofit health plan for Medicare and Medicaid patients says “It doesn’t take very many ED visits and it takes less than one hospital admission avoided, to actually more than pay for the time that Lisa spent with Jeremie.”

Oregon has no formal numbers yet, but the federal government has given the state almost $2 billion and five years to show it can reduce the rate of medical inflation by two percent.

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes NPROregon Public Broadcasting, and Kaiser Health News. 

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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