Illinois hospital offers housing to curb ER superusers

Doctor and nurses wheeling patient in gurney through hospital corridor
Permanent supportive housing for homeless patients may curb the number of emergency room superusers. (Getty/Sam Edwards)

One of the biggest drivers in hospital spending is the rising number of “superusers,” patients who visit the emergency room or are admitted to a general acute care hospital several times a year.

But an Illinois hospital noticed that many of its most frequent users were chronically homeless patients, who didn’t always come for medical care. In many cases they just needed a warm place to stay on a cold night.

To better help care for these patients—and cut costs—the University of Illinois Hospital (UI-Hospital) and Health Sciences System launched a housing initiative in 2015 to provide furnished apartments and support services for homeless patients.

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Prior to the program, seven of the top 10 users of the organization’s ER were chronically homeless and accessed the system between 30 and 120 times a year. The organization’s $250,000 investment in the program has led to impressive results, reported AHA News. So far, the monthly hospital visits have declined by 35% and the annual cost of care for these patients dropped more than 40%.

In addition to housing, patients are assigned a case manager who coordinates their care and helps them manage money.

“We see funding housing as a way of improving health," Avijit Ghosh, M.D., CEO of the UI Health Hospital & Clinics, said on the hospital website. "Actions like this are important to address the problems facing our community. By helping those who rely on UI Health, we're improving the health of both the individuals and our community overall."

Peter Toepfer, associate vice president of housing for the Center for Housing and Health in Chicago, which partners with the hospital, told AHA News that hospitals and health systems must view patients who are chronically homeless the same way they consider chronic illnesses. The best prescription, he said, is providing a homeless patient with permanent supportive housing.

SBH Health System, based in New York City’s Bronx borough, is working on a similar initiative by partnering with a developer to build housing for low-income patients.