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Anthem Blue Cross promotes alternatives to expensive emergency room visits

July 7, 2011 |  3:36 pm

Looking for cheaper alternatives to the emergency room? There are urgent care centers and retail health clinics throughout California that may be all you need. And the state’s largest for-profit health insurer says it has a quick way to find them online.

Anthem Blue Cross has launched its California ER Alternative Finder that allows customers to plug in addresses or Zip Codes through Google Maps to locate nearby medical providers.

Anthem, hoping to counter exorbitant emergency room costs, wants to persuade policyholders to use the less expensive options to treat sprained ankles, animal bites, mild asthma and other non-emergency medical ailments.

The Woodland Hills insurer said anyone can use its online application, but only clinics that take its insurance are listed on the website. People with other health plans must ask providers about costs. fdf

“It’s important people know that they have options for less serious ailments other than the ER … that provide quality care and cost them significantly less,” Dr. Kurt Tamaru, Anthem's medical director, said in a statement.

The new campaign comes as healthcare experts are focusing new attention on the overuse of emergency rooms to treat minor medical conditions. A study last year by the Rand Corp. estimated that as much as 27% of emergency room visits could be handled by urgent care centers or retail clinics, potentially saving $4.4 billion in healthcare costs annually.

Anthem said its treatment alternatives could produce dramatic savings in California. Emergency rooms that contract with the company charge an average of $641 to treat strep throat, while urgent care centers charge about $70 and retail health clinics cost about $27, it said.

Anthem said its policyholders face average emergency room co-pays of $150 but only $10 to $40 in the other settings.

-- Duke Helfand