Health insurer WellPoint Inc. has enlisted Google Maps for new websites that help patients think twice before they visit an emergency room for care that a less-expensive retail health clinic could handle.
The sites help people in states where the insurer does business find alternatives to the nearest emergency room when their regular doctor is not available. There are maps showing options near a patient's address, an explanation of ER alternatives and a note that tells patients to call 911 or go to an emergency room if they think delaying care would place their health "at serious risk."
The website also includes the number for a WellPoint hotline staffed by nurses who can offer more specific guidance.
WellPoint has launched websites for Colorado, Georgia, Nevada, California and Virginia and will add sites for its nine remaining states next month. As an example, here is the site for Virginia.
Based in Indianapolis, WellPoint runs Blue Cross Blue Shield plans in 14 states and is the nation's largest health insurer based on enrollment.
The company said patients can face co-payments of $100 to $200 for using an emergency room, compared with $10 to $40 for retail health clinics and urgent care centers.
Health insurers also save money when patients take the less-expensive option. An ER visit to treat strep throat might cost an insurer $580, for instance, when an urgent care center would charge $90 and a retail health clinic $40.
Dr. Manish Oza, an emergency room physician, WellPoint medical director and designer of the website, said patients often come to an emergency room because they don't know where else to go when their doctor's office is closed, and they don't understand the cost difference until they receive a bill afterward. Oza also said patients don't understand they can sometimes wait for hours in a busy ER if their condition isn't life-threatening
WellPoint will use online ads and mail brochures to publicize the sites. Patients who visit the ER when they could have used an alternative also will receive an automated call afterward reminding them to consider other options, spokeswoman Lori McLaughlin said.