Placement changes and emergency department visits in the first year of foster care.Pediatrics. 2004 Sep; 114(3):e354-60.Ped
Despite great needs, many children in foster care do not receive adequate medical care. Suboptimal care may be attributable in part to placement changes, which disrupt continuity of care by both a consistent surrogate parent and potentially a primary care physician. These disruptions in turn may lead to increased use of the emergency department (ED) for outpatient care. The primary aim of this study was to test whether a greater rate of placement changes was associated with increasing use of the ED among children in their first year of foster care. The secondary aim was to compare ED visit rates with rates of visits to other ambulatory care settings among children in foster care and other Medicaid-eligible children not in foster care.
Using Medicaid claims linked to foster care administrative data, we assembled a retrospective cohort of foster children in a large urban municipality from 1993 to 1996. Eligible children spent at least 9 months in a new episode of foster care and were continuously eligible for Medicaid during a 1-year follow-up period. A comparison cohort was drawn from Medicaid-eligible children not in foster care during fiscal year 1995. The dependent variable was the rate of visits to the ED or other ambulatory care settings during a 1-year follow-up period. A negative binomial model estimated visit rates to the ED and other ambulatory care settings as the number of foster care placements increased. Potential interactions were considered between age and location of service use (ED or ambulatory care setting), between age and foster care placements, and between location of service use and number of foster care placements.
The 2358 children in the sample accounted for 1206 ED visits during the follow-up period; 38% experienced >or=2 placement changes. Children of all ages exhibited increasing reliance on the ED for ambulatory care services as the number of placements increased, with the rates of ED use more than doubling for all age groups beyond infancy. However, other ambulatory care service use increased by only 41% to 53%; there was much less utilization in these nonemergency settings for all children but particularly toddlers and infants, compared with their Medicaid-eligible peers. Although the absolute rates of all visits for younger foster children (<6 years of age) were low, older foster children had increasingly greater ED use than did their Medicaid-eligible peers, with nearly double the rate of ED visits in the adolescent age group. A temporal relationship between placements and ED visits was also identified; 75% of ED visits occurring within 3 weeks of a placement change occurred in the period after a placement change.
Foster children received fewer overall outpatient services than did their Medicaid-eligible peers, but with age and increasing numbers of placements, had higher visit rates and received a greater proportion of their overall outpatient care in the ED. These results suggest that poor access to nonemergent ambulatory care settings might have contributed to an increasing reliance on ED settings as foster care placements increased. The temporal relationship between ED visits and placement changes underscores the need for better health care management for foster children, particularly in the period after placement changes.