STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
People who go many times to the emergency room are referred to as frequent flyers. Taking care of them is expensive, so hospitals all around the country are experimenting with ways to keep them healthy and out of the ER. One hospital system in Cleveland is finding some success. And from member station WCPN, Sarah Jane Tribble reports.
SARAH JANE TRIBBLE, BYLINE: Carmen Smith remembers the day about a year ago she gained Medicaid coverage.
CARMEN SMITH: It was like Christmas day. It was like getting a gift from Santa Claus. People don't realize how important and how, you know, special it is to have insurance, to be able to go to see a doctor on a regular basis when you have an illness like mine.
TRIBBLE: Smith has Type 2 diabetes. Before qualifying for Medicaid coverage, Smith had used the emergency room five times in one year. She bought insulin over-the-counter, guessed at her dosage and frequently got sick.
SMITH: I remember one instance when my sugars were up and I felt like I was having a heart attack. So it was like heart palpitations. And I ended up staying in the emergency room for 24-hour observation department.
TRIBBLE: That kind of care is expensive. Smith couldn't pay the bills, but she made too much money to qualify for Medicaid. MetroHealth is the public hospital, based in Cleveland. It has struggled for years to cover the cost of patients like Smith. So long before Ohio expanded Medicaid, the hospital redirected more than $30 million it receives from county taxpayers each year into a new pot. They use the money to create their very own Medicaid program for county residents and they track the patients. The results for the first nine months are in. Dr. Randy Cebul is a researcher at MetroHealth.
RANDY CEBUL: All of the clinical outcomes are really amazing.
TRIBBLE: MetroHealth used extensive electronic records to carefully select uninsured patients and sent them Medicaid cards before they even applied. Then, MetroHealth gave highly personalized attention to the patients. Cebul says they focused on 18,000 of them, who came to the hospital a lot.
CEBUL: The diabetes outcomes were probably most impressive. The sugar control, the blood pressure control, the lipid control - virtually everything was much better and dramatically so.
TRIBBLE: MetroHealth assigns each patient a nurse. That nurse books their appointments, calls them if they missed one and checks to make sure they took their meds. In nine months, emergency department visits dropped 60 percent and primary care visits went up 50 percent. The hospital also ended up spending less than they budgeted, said Cebul, saving an average of $150 on each patient, every month.
CEBUL: Better care, better outcomes, lower costs.
TRIBBLE: Outside of Cleveland, a handful of cities and states are also trying to figure out how to make patients healthier and save money at the same time. But results haven't always been so promising. In Oregon, for example, emergency department use went up when patients got Medicaid, not down. They ran their experiment differently, giving some people Medicaid, while leaving others uninsured. And they didn't do any of the oversight that Cleveland did. Matt Salo leads the National Association of Medicaid Directors. He says no one program will have all the answers. Instead, at a time when health reform is changing the way patients everywhere are treated, Salo says there's a lot at stake in trying to figure out what works.
MATT SALO: You know, we've got 50 plus states who are out there actively try to steal best practices and good ideas and reform principles from other states.
TRIBBLE: Back at Carmen Smith's house, she recalls how before getting Medicaid, she was using a scooter to shop around Wal-Mart. Now she rides her bike around town.
SMITH: I'm really excited 'cause I'm doing a good job. I feel so good about myself. I get off my bike and I'm not like out of breath. I'm not tired. But I know it's high cardio 'cause my heart is pumping.
TRIBBLE: Smith says she can't wait to call her nurse to see what this means for her blood sugar levels. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Jane Tribble in Cleveland.
INSKEEP: Her story's part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WCPN and Kaiser Health News.