Urgent Care vs. the Emergency Care: Know Your Options

urgent care

Imagine you are in a car accident. You feel fine, but you head to the nearest urgent care clinic to get examined just to be safe. When you arrive, you are turned away. Why did this happen?

Unlike emergency rooms, urgent care centers have no obligation to treat you—and it’s perfectly legal for them to deny you care.

urgent care

What’s the Difference?

Urgent care centers offer similar services to doctors’ offices, with typically more night and weekend availability. They are equipped to handle non-life-threatening conditions like bronchitis, muscle pain, cuts, minor burns, skin conditions, and vomiting. They also provide basic diagnostic testing. They are generally less expensive and have shorter wait times than emergency rooms.

Emergency rooms operate 24/7. They are fully equipped and staffed to handle any medical emergency. Because they are attached to a hospital, they have quick access to specialized care.  

Who Can Be Turned Away?

Under the Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act (EMTALA), emergency rooms must treat patients regardless of their ability to pay. This law does not apply to urgent care facilities. Urgent care centers can legally turn you away and refer you to the emergency room instead. This most commonly occurs with car accident injuries.

Your Car Insurance Matters

Auto insurance is primarily responsible for handling medical bills resulting from a car accident. It can take months for a provider to get paid through an auto insurance policy, however. Many urgent care centers do not have the funds to wait long to be paid, so they simply turn away auto accident cases.  

Unlike health insurers, auto insurers don’t have a broad network of medical providers with whom they negotiate rates. This means it is more likely that a provider from your auto policy will be out of network with your health insurance.

What You Need to Know

There is no denying that dealing with insurance can be complicated and difficult. But it is beneficial to carefully read the terms before you commit to a plan. It is also important to carefully check which providers are in-network before you receive care, when possible. Otherwise, you may be on the hook for steep medical bills.

Also, be aware of what your local urgent care centers do and do not treat before you go. This can save you time and money and keep you focused on what matters the most—getting better.