EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. — Emergency Room doctors are sounding the alarm as Colorado’s hospital system shows cracks from post-pandemic pressure. Health experts are calling on the state to act while hospitals try to re-navigate patients needing care from depleting emergency departments.

ER visits plummeted early in the pandemic, largely because fewer diseases were spreading and there was a growing public fear about catching COVID-19 in a hospital setting. Now two years later, ER visits are nearing pre-COVID levels for substance use issues and anxiety.

Despite the challenges, hospitals and emergency physicians are united in urging Coloradans to seek emergency care if they need it.

“We’re looking at groups like children versus adults versus our members who have disabilities,” said Tamara Keeney, Research and Analysis Manager of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing (CDHCPF).

Health First Colorado, the state’s Medicaid program, is releasing findings by the CDHCPF to better meet the needs of patients and emergency departments.

“We also break out our pregnant members because that is a group that we know has a higher utilization of the emergency department,” Keeney explained.

Health First Colorado said in El Paso County, nearly 27% of the population is enrolled in Medicaid, and pre- pandemic, our county’s annual ER visits outpace statewide data.

Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, El Paso County Fact Sheet

“Historically what we’ve seen is people using emergency departments for primary care and that’s not really the appropriate setting for primary care,” Matt Sundeen, Program Management Section Manager said.

While ER visits dropped during the pandemic with 218,000 fewer visits, Health First Colorado saw an increase in membership and ER behavioral health visits like anxiety and alcohol use disorder.

The stressors of the pandemic helped fuel a national mental health crisis. The state now has appropriate use checks for regional Medicaid members.

“A lot of the focus of that work is trying to keep them out of the emergency room,” Sundeen said. “Whether it’s in the home, whether it’s in a primary care facility, an OBGYN, or some other provider.”

The state encourages physicians to help patients get treatment in a more appropriate setting or earlier because when emergency departments are used for non-emergencies, Sundeen said “That gets very expensive for the health care system.”

It also increases costs for patients.

For more information the full Health First Colorado Emergency Department Utilization Report can be found below.