CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's largest health insurer said Wednesday it is making its first investment in urgent care clinics, hoping more locations will drive down its costs for hospital emergency rooms visits.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina said it is pumping an undisclosed amount of money into FastMed Urgent Care to expand its network of clinics.
Blue Cross says with more urgent care clinics available, fewer people will go to hospital emergency rooms. Also, it said patients who don't need emergency care save hours of waiting and the insurer will save 90 percent of the costs.
Clayton-based FastMed operates 26 North Carolina locations and 16 in Arizona. The clinics are owned by the physicians who work there but are operated by FastMed, which is owned by Florida-based private investment firm Comvest Group.
"Working together, we can offer North Carolinians even more choices for convenient, cost-effective care," Blue Cross CEO Brad Wilson said.
Blue Cross said its records show that emergency rooms — which must treat patients who show up whether or not they can pay for medical care — have seen increasing usage over the past decade and now more than 20 percent of ER visits are for non-emergencies. One out of seven emergency room claims paid by Blue Cross are for non-emergency ailments, the company said.
If just 5 percent of those non-emergency patients who need help setting broken bones, stitching closed wounds, or treating respiratory illnesses shift from hospital ERs to urgent care centers, it would cut medical spending by $8 million a year, the company said.
The companies would not disclose the size of the insurer's investment.
FastMed spokesman Kevin Blank said Blue Cross will have a minority ownership stake in the urgent care clinics operator. FastMed is expanding fast with three more North Carolina locations and two in Arizona opening by the end of the year, Blank said, so Blue Cross sees its investment as "a nation-wide growth opportunity."
Consumer advocate Adam Searing said while it's good for people who don't need emergency care to have more urgent care clinics to choose from, he's wary though of Blue Cross crossing a line and getting into the business of providing medical care.
"If your insurance company is taking care of you and thus has a financial incentive to save money in the care, what assurance is there of quality? Will there be assessments of these clinics?" said Searing, who directs the North Carolina Health Access Coalition.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio