The difference between urgent care clinics and freestanding ERs

In the past, people would go to an urgent care clinic, but now freestanding ERs are another option. Except when you get them confused, you could end up making a costly mistake.

If you're seeking medical attention for a late-night health issue, where you go for care makes a major difference in what you'll pay for it.

In the past, people would go to an urgent care clinic, but now freestanding emergency rooms are another option. They're popping up all over the place, growing from 16 nationwide in 2010 to 324 this year.

Kristiana Beck confused the two and it's now costing her big time.

"I was cooking steaks in the oven and I went to take the steaks out and the potholder slipped," Beck said.

When Beck placed her thumb on a hot skillet back in Feb., she wasn't sure she needed to see a doctor.

"I put my thumb in a glass of water thinking I could just work my through it," Beck said. "Ate dinner, watched a movie, then decided the pain was too much. I pulled out my computer and I Googled the closest urgent care."

She said the Austin Emergency Center in northwest Austin came up.

"I got in the car drove up there," Beck said. "After I gave them my insurance cards, I was there for 15 minutes. They gave me three nerve block shots."

After the visit, she said she asked about the cost.

"They said 'oh don't worry about it, we'll take care of it with your insurance and we'll send you the invoice in the mail,'" Beck said.

Three weeks later, she got an invoice for $2,631.84 and found out that her insurance didn't cover the services she received.

"Totaling over $2,600 for my 15 minutes," Beck said.

KVUE asked her about the paperwork she had to fill out.

"I was in so much pain, I'm not sure," Beck said. "I signed some documents, I didn't really read them."

Although it may look like an urgent care clinic to some, the Austin Emergency Center is actually a freestanding emergency room and new research from Rice University shows they can charge up to 10 times more per visit. The HealthCare Blue Book, an online tool which gives consumers reasonable prices for care, says a nerve block shot typically costs about $194.

"So this is like four times what it should have cost," Beck said.

A spokesperson for the Austin Emergency Center did not want to make an on-camera comment but says the cost of their care comes with what they're offering, such as 24/7 service, staff trained in emergency medicine and more sophisticated equipment than an urgent care facility.

"Had I known, I would have slept with my hand in the ice water probably," Beck said.

Now, she's hoping others in similar situations can learn from this.

So what can you do to protect yourself?

First, at any freestanding care clinic, look for the word 'emergency.' By law, it's required to be on all emergency room buildings.

Then read any document you're given and ask as many questions as you can. It's also important to become familiar with your insurance policy and what kind of emergency care it covers.

© 2017 KVUE-TV


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