Andrea Gaytan's children are both visiting the ER. Photo by Jonathan Olivares
Boredom is a fact of life in emergency rooms, where long waits are common for patients with problems that aren’t life-threatening.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, two teenage girls text away in the emergency room at White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights; a family of three sits in a semi-circle waiting to hear news about their loved one, while three boys quarrel over who gets to play the next Nintendo DS video game.
In Boyle Heights, where one third of residents are uninsured, many people don’t have a primary health care provider and use emergency rooms when they’re sick or injured. As a result, some health conditions go untreated and turn into serious or even fatal health issues.
President Obama’s Affordable Care Act will increase access to government and private insurance for many more people. It is expected that the pressure on ERs may drop as newly insured people find care at local clinics and in private doctor’s offices.
In 2009, California patients spent an average of four hours and a half in hospital emergency rooms, according to a 2010 report by Press Ganey, a health care consulting firm. The report is based on evaluations of the experiences of 1.5 million patients treated at 1,893 hospitals.
White Memorial’s Emergency Waiting Room
Victoria Quintana, 56, sat hunched over in pain one July afternoon as she waited to hear her name called in the emergency room. She moved slowly and delicately as she pointed to a bump on her head and an injured leg.
“That’s where all the blood was coming from” said Quintana pointing to her head.
Three days before, she says that she had been attacked in Boyle Heights by a man on the street who snatched her Bible. She refused to call an ambulance and instead waited nearly 72 hours to come to the ER.
“I figured that within time [the pain] would just stop, that’s why I didn’t go to the hospital. I thought, ‘I can’t afford it.’ ”
Quintana gets by on $200 monthly for taking care of her disabled sister, an income so low that she surely would qualify for Medi-Cal ”“ even before the reforms of Obamacare. Yet, like many uninsured people, she lacks basic information on the benefits that could improve her life. She says she doesn’t have insurance and barely has enough to pay for her needs.
Quintana is not a regular at the doctor’s office. She gets teary-eyed when she speaks about the back pain she’s endured and left untreated after a car accident in her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the many times she would have like to have seen a counselor to help her cope with years of depression she suffered following deaths in her family.
“I didn’t want to do anything. I just felt drained,” said Quintana.
In another part of the waiting room, 30-year-old Boyle Heights resident Andrea Gaytán sat relaxed surrounded by her four children. While one of her sons was clinging to her father, who sat next to her, another was sprawled at her feet, as the older two entertained themselves playing on their Nintendo DS.
Emergency rooms are all too familiar for the Gaytán family, even though her family has insurance through Medi-Cal and she can name a local medical practice they visit at times, Cuidado Latino Medical Group.
Prepared for the four to five hour wait they had experienced before, Gaytan said about her children: “They’ve been seen here all their life, so I’m comfortable.”
Families like the Gaytáns contribute to higher health care costs for everyone. That is because Gaytán goes to the emergency room, the most expensive part of the health care system, for routine care. That’s true even though she can get health care for little or no cost at a local clinic with Medi-Cal.
Gaytán’s 13-year old daughter was back for a second visit for a dislocated knee, which wasn’t healing. Her eight-year-old son needed to see a doctor for a three-day fever.
This year, Gaytán says they visited the ER at least half a dozen times, mostly for her diabetic father. She takes him to the ER when his blood sugar is high or when he’s having trouble breathing ”“ all signs that his disease is not properly managed in a doctor’s office. Similarly, she had brought her son to the ER the year before for a stomach virus, an ailment that can be handled with routine care.
“We’ve been waiting here almost an hour,” said the single mother who also cares for her elderly father.
“We’ll probably wait at least another hour.”