Patient surprised by big bill from freestanding ER

WEST WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – Elizabeth Darling was having trouble breathing, so a friend rushed her to Neighbors Emergency Center, a new freestanding emergency room in West Warwick.

“They gave me oxygen, they did chest X-rays, an EKG, and blood work,” Darling said.

When she got to the ER, however, Darling overlooked a sign at the front desk, warning patients that Medicare and Medicaid are not accepted at the facility. She was billed more than $1,600.

“I never would have stayed there,” Darling said. “I would have walked out that door, had I known.”

Neighbors Emergency Center (NEC) is the first freestanding ER in Rhode Island. It opened in November — just a few months after state lawmakers created rules for such facilities — and has treated more than 600 patients so far, according to the company.

“We provide the same services that most hospital emergency rooms provide,” facility director Melissa Frias explained. “What we do a little bit differently is we have very short wait times. Patients generally get to see a doctor within five minutes and our discharge times are shorter.”

Though the concept of freestanding ERs is familiar in some states, including Texas, the federal government doesn’t recognize freestanding ERs and won’t reimburse costs for Medicare and Medicaid patients.

“Neighbors Emergency Center and other freestanding emergency room companies are actually lobbying to get that changed,” Frias said. “We want to be able to take care of those patients. We feel like we really offer a great alternative for people. We’re hoping that the federal government will recognize us soon.”

In the meantime, Call 12 for Action asked if NEC is doing enough to alert patients that their insurance may not cover visits.

“We have signs throughout the facility,” Frias said. “We educate people when they come in about the fact that we’re unable to take Medicare and Medicaid, but if someone is coming in and they look like they’re having a stroke or heart attack or they can’t breathe, we just take care of them. It’s not safe to sit there and have a conversation about  finances at that point.”

While Call 12 for Action was at Darling’s home for an interview, she spoke on the phone with a patient advocate from Neighbors Emergency Center who promised to look for discounts and work out a payment plan.

The Rhode Island Department of Health has approved a second NEC location in Bristol. An opening date has not been scheduled yet.