KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Across the country, thousands of homeless people check into the ER dozens of times a year for chronic medical problems or just to get off the street. Hospitals struggle to take care of them while making sure beds are open for true emergencies. In Chicago, one hospital is trying something different. Miles Bryan of member station WBEZ reports.
MILES BRYAN, BYLINE: For Glenn Baker, the University of Illinois Chicago hospital's emergency room is a very familiar place. He's got his favorite double-wide chair in the corner, knows where to find the Cheetos in the vending machine and the staff is like family. Patty Zion is a nurse here.
PATTY ZION: I do know Glenn very well. He's one of our very famous patients that comes around and sees us quite often when he's not feeling well.
BRYAN: For a lot of people, the ER is a scary place, but Baker says he likes it here.
GLENN BAKER: This is home to me because everyone...
BRYAN: In the ER?
BAKER: Yes - everyone's here. I've been through here numerous - over 20 times...
LASHERIN MCFARLAND: Literally home - where you know he wants something to eat or he's sitting out there...
BAKER: That's nurse Lasherin McFarland who knows Glenn Baker all too well.
MCFARLAND: I used to see him every night.
BRYAN: Baker suffers from severe asthma and other medical issues, but he's quick to admit he often ended up here in this hospital, not because he was sick, but because he was homeless.
BAKER: Just try and fake an illness or something, so that the hospital would admit me and I would not be able to be on the streets while it was cold.
BRYAN: In the hospital world, patients like Baker are often called frequent fliers. Last winter, he spent about 20 nights each month checked in to Chicago hospitals. There are thousands of people like Baker across the country. More than 55 million people are on Medicaid in the U.S.
But according to a recent government report, about half of the program's annual resources go to just about 3 million patients. And even if the patient has Medicaid, frequent visits can cost the hospital money, says Avijit Ghosh. He's the University of Illinois Chicago hospital's CEO.
AVIJIT GHOSH: Well, typically on an average, it's about $3,000 a day. That's about how much it costs to provide hospital bed care.
BRYAN: This year, his hospital is putting up $250,000 of its own money to get those people into apartments instead, which Ghosh says, costs the hospital about $1,000 a month per patient.
GHOSH: So you can see the difference between 3,000 a day and a thousand a month.
BRYAN: The Chicago Hospital has partnered with the city homeless advocate group for the project. It's starting small aiming to get about 25 people housing and connect them with a case manager who helps them do things like schedule doctors' appointments, instead of going to the ER.
Ghosh says it seems to be working. Currently the health care costs of the 15 people the hospital has housed so far are down 75 percent.
GHOSH: Our hospital quite often is at capacity, so if we are using a bed for somebody who really doesn't need to be there, somebody else is foregoing the care.
BRYAN: Treating housing as part of a patient's health is an idea that's caught on with local governments and social service organizations in recent years.
Dr. Kelly Doran studies how homeless people use the emergency room at the NYU School of Medicine.
KELLY DORAN: The new thing here really is that the hospital is putting forth money for this effort.
BRYAN: Doran says for a program like this to really work, there needs to be a long-term investment. The investment so far has got Glenn Baker this light, airy one-bedroom apartment.
BAKER: Yes, this is it. This is my own room. I have my own private space.
BRYAN: This is home now, even if there are some things he misses about the hospital.
BAKER: This bed here is like - it's kind of firm, so I mean, I would take a soft, comfortable hospital bed any day because it's really softer than this.
BRYAN: Oh, and he misses his nurse friends, too. For NPR News, I'm Miles Bryan in Chicago.
POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We say that the health care costs of the 15 people the hospital has helped house so far "are down by 75 percent." That number should actually be 42 percent. The University of Illinois, Chicago hospital researchers who gave NPR the incorrect number say the error arose because they made a mistake in their calculations.