Freestanding ERs Can Increase Capacity to Treat Coronavirus Pandemic

HOUSTON – MARCH 23, 2020 – As coronavirus spreads throughout Texas, particularly in large urban areas like Austin, Dallas and Houston, Rhonda Sandel, CEO of Texas Emergency Care Center, founding member and immediate-past president of the Texas Association of Freestanding Emergency Centers (TAFEC), and the National Association of Freestanding Emergency Centers (NAFEC), commends Governor Abbott for his response to pandemic and recommends that the state look to freestanding emergency centers statewide as part of the solution. Freestanding emergency centers can increase the capacity of the healthcare system to test for coronavirus and treat the outbreak, including beds, pharmacies, supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and trained and experienced emergency medicine physicians and staff capable of treating all urgent and emergent medical conditions.

“Across the state of Texas alone, there are more than 1,550 beds in 200 freestanding emergency centers.  I ask that the state enable this large healthcare resource to relieve the burden on hospitals,” said Sandel. “There are freestanding ERs in small rural towns and rural counties as well as large, urban areas. Our ER doctors and staff can provide much needed support in the large cities, which will most likely be hit the hardest with COVID-19 cases, but basically, we have resources that are sitting idle because of burdensome regulations on freestanding ERs.”

As a leader in the industry, Sandel has been working with state and federal legislators for years to remove constraints which would make it possible to treat all Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) patients. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, she says it is exponentially more time critical to increase access to emergency care and bed capacity.

With state waivers Governor Abbott could allow freestanding emergency rooms to:

  • Expand testing for Coronavirus and COVID-19.
  • Provide outpatient care services including radiology, imaging, laboratory testing, etc. at the non-emergency care rates.
  • Provide telemedicine regardless of whether or not the emergency physician is an in-network provider.
  • Participate in Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Texas Medicaid could certify freestanding emergency centers while change is being determined at the federal level.

While officials are looking at alternative options to increase bed capacity for the hospitals, including hotels, closed hospitals and abandoned medical facilities, they should first rely on the licensed resources that are readily available in the state.

“There is no better immediate option than looking to freestanding emergency rooms during this time. During Hurricane Harvey, many facilities in Houston and across the state stepped up when hospitals were flooded or could not be reached. All facilities across the state are able to do this and I urge Governor Abbott to look to us now,” Sandel said.

Freestanding emergency care centers are licensed as emergency centers by the state of Texas, which means they are staffed by physicians who are trained, experienced, and/or board certified in emergency medicine, employ nurses and staff that are emergency-medicine trained, and have the same diagnostic testing, laboratory services, resources, and equipment including ventilators, as a hospital emergency department.

“I have personally been working closely with Houston-area hospital systems in order to increase their capacity to treat COVID-19 and hope this will be made possible statewide. Freestanding emergency rooms have the doctors, nurses, staff, equipment, supplies, and facilities to be part of the solution and we are ready to help,” she said.