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Health Care 911: U-T San Diego’s In-Depth Look

Raohl Hursh has used the emergency medical system at least 70 times since Jul...

Photo by James Gregg / U-T San Diego

Above: Raohl Hursh has used the emergency medical system at least 70 times since July 1, 2011.

Health Care 911 Reporters on KPBS

John Gonzales with the Center for Health Reporting and James Gregg with U-T San Diego talk to KPBS about their project, "Health Care 911."

Health Care 911/U-T San Diego

Part 1: Constant Patients, U-T San Diego

U-T Health 911 Series

Part 1: The Problem

Part 2: The Streets

Part 3: The ER

Part 4: A New Model

Part 5: Frequent Users

A new series of stories from U-T San Diego describes a different kind of "1 percent" than those targeted by the Occupy movement. This 1 percent of the population are "frequent fliers" in hospital emergency rooms: they call 911 on average six times a year.

"Though they're a small percentage of the city, they account for over 17 percent of all paramedic and ambulance calls in the city," said John Gonzales, a reporter with Center for Health Reporting who wrote the stories.

Some of the frequent callers are very sick and suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, or liver disease, he said. But other callers are mentally ill, or have substance abuse problems.

These 911 calls cost $20 million a year just for paramedic and ambulance charges, Gonzales said. He said there is no solid number for how much their emergency room visits cost.

He added most of these callers have some kind of public insurance like Medi-Cal, but that Medi-Cal can involve long waiting times for coverage and appointments.

"That's one of the reasons the ER has become a viable alternative," he said.

Yesterday on KPBS Television's "Evening Edition," Chris Van Gorder, the CEO of Scripps Health System, agreed with this assessment.

“We do have a national health care system, it’s called the emergency room,” he said.

James Gregg, a photographer and videographer with U-T San Diego who shot the series, said one man he photographed, Raohl Hursh, has been in the emergency room more than 70 times and in jail twice.

"A really nice guy, I really enjoyed being around him," Gregg said, "but just trying to understand what he wants out of this experience and what he's really trying for, I don't know that I ever understood it."

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