Hospitals find asthma hot spots more profitable to neglect than fix

Patient and nurse in hospital
In one recent three-year period, hospitals collected $6.1 million for treating just 50 inpatients, the ones most frequently ill with asthma, each of whom visited the hospital at least 10 times. Getty/monkeybusinessimages

BALTIMORE—Keyonta Parnell has had asthma most of his young life, but it wasn’t until his family moved to the 140-year-old house here on Lemmon Street two years ago that he became one of the healthcare system’s frequent customers.

“I call 911 so much since I’ve been living here, they know my name,” said the 9-year-old’s mother, Darlene Summerville, who calls the emergency medical system her “best friend.”

Summerville and her family live in the worst asthma hot spot in Baltimore: ZIP code 21223, where decrepit houses, rodents and bugs trigger the disease and where few community doctors work to prevent asthma emergencies. One mom there wields a BB gun to keep rats from her asthmatic child.

Residents of this area visit hospitals for asthma flare-ups at more than four times the rate of people from the city’s wealthier neighborhoods, according to data analyzed by Kaiser Health News and the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.

Baltimore paramedic crews make more asthma-related visits per capita in 21223 than anywhere else in the city, according to fire department records. It is the second-most-common ZIP code among patients hospitalized for asthma, which, when addressed properly, should never require emergency visits or hospitalization.

The supreme irony of the localized epidemic is that Keyonta’s neighborhood in southwest Baltimore is in the shadow of prestigious medical centers—Johns Hopkins, whose researchers are international experts on asthma prevention, and the University of Maryland Medical Center.

RELATED: With the launch of a new asthma app, Nemours looks to bring all its digital tools onto a single platform by 2019

Both receive massive tax breaks in return for providing “community benefit,” a poorly defined federal requirement that they serve their neighborhoods. Under Maryland’s ambitious effort to control medical costs, both are supposed to try to improve residents’ health outside the hospital and prevent admissions.

But like hospitals across the country, the institutions have done little to address the root causes of asthma. The perverse incentives of the healthcare payment system have long made it far more lucrative to treat severe, dangerous asthma attacks than to prevent them.

Hopkins, UMMC and other hospitals collected $84 million over the three years ending in 2015 to treat acutely ill Baltimore asthma patients as inpatients or in emergency rooms, according to the news organizations’ analysis of statewide hospital data. Hopkins and a sister hospital received $31 million of that.

Executives at Hopkins and UMMC acknowledge that they should do more about asthma in the community but note that there are many competing problems: diabetes, drug overdoses, infant mortality and mental illness among the homeless.

Science has shown it’s relatively easy and inexpensive to reduce asthma attacks: Remove rodents, carpets, bugs, cigarette smoke and other triggers. Deploy community doctors to prescribe preventive medicine and health workers to teach patients to use it.

Ben Carson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who saw hundreds of asthmatic children from low-income Baltimore during his decades as a Hopkins neurosurgeon, said that the research on asthma triggers is unequivocal. “It’s the environment—the moist environments that encourage the mold, the ticks, the fleas, the mice, the roaches,” he said in an interview.

As the leader of HUD, he says he favors reducing asthma risks in public housing as a way of cutting expensive hospital visits. The agency is discussing ways to finance pest removal, moisture control and other remediation in places asthma patients live, a spokeswoman said.

“The cost of not taking care of people is probably greater than the cost of taking care of them” by removing triggers, Carson said, adding, “It depends on whether you take the short-term view or the long-term view.”