Article | July 2018

Emergency Room Visit: When to Go, What to Expect, Wait Times and Cost

Knowing when and why to go for an emergency room visit can help you plan for care in the event of a medical emergency.

How much does it cost to go to an emergency room?

Emergency room costs can vary greatly depending on what type of medical care you need. How much you pay for the visit depends on your health insurance plan. Most health plans may require you to pay something out-of-pocket for an emergency room visit. A visit to the ER may cost more if you have a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) and you have not met your plan’s annual deductible. HDHPs typically offer lower monthly premiums and higher deductibles than traditional health plans. Your plan will start paying for eligible medical expenses once you’ve met the plan’s annual deductible.

When should I go to an emergency room?

Emergency rooms are often very busy because many people don’t know what type of care they need, so they immediately go to the ER when they are sick or hurt. You should make an emergency room visit for any condition that’s considered life-threatening. Life-threatening conditions include, but are not limited to, things like a serious allergic reaction, trouble breathing or speaking, disorientation, a loss of consciousness, or any physical trauma.

If you need to be treated for problems that are considered non-life threatening, such as an earache, fever and flu symptoms, minor animal bites, mild asthma, or a mild urinary tract infection, consider seeing your doctor or visiting an urgent care center or convenience care clinic.

What is the cost of an emergency room visit without insurance?

Emergency room costs with or without health insurance can be very high. If you have health insurance, review your plan documents for details on the costs associated with your plan, including your plan deductible, coinsurance, and copay requirements.

If you don’t have insurance, you may be required to pay the full cost of your treatment, which can vary by facility and the type of treatment required. Always plan ahead for sudden sickness, injury, or other medical needs, so you know where to go and how much it could cost. If you need medical care, but it’s not life-threatening you may not have to go to the ER—there are other more affordable options:

  • Urgent care center: Staffed by doctors, nurses and other medical staff who can treat things like earaches, urinary tract infections, minor cuts, nausea, vomiting, etc. Wait times may be shorter and using an urgent care center could save you hundreds of dollars when compared to an ER.
  • Convenience care clinic: Walk-in clinics are typically located in a pharmacy (CVS, Walgreens, etc.) or supermarket/retail store (Target, Walmart, etc.). These clinics are staffed with physician assistants and nurse practitioners who can provide care for minor cold, fever, flu, rashes and bruises, head lice, allergies, sinus/ear infections, urinary tract infections, even flu and shingles shots. No appointments are needed, wait times are usually minimal, and a convenience care clinic costs much less than an ER.

Plan ahead for when you need medical care. You may not need an emergency room visit and the bill that could come with it.

What are common emergency room wait times?

Emergency room wait times vary according to hospital and location. Patients in the ER are seen based on how serious their condition is. This means that the patients with life-threatening conditions are treated first, and those with non-life threatening conditions have to wait.

To help reduce ER wait times, health care facilities encourage you to plan ahead for care, so when you’re sick or hurt, you know if the ER is right for your medical condition.

An emergency room visit can take up time and money if your problem is not life-threatening. Consider other care options, such as an urgent care center, convenience care clinic, your doctor, or a virtual doctor visit (video chat/telehealth)—all of which could be faster and save you money out of your own pocket if the medical problem is non-life threatening.

If you have health insurance, be sure to check your plan documents to see what types of care options are eligible for coverage under your plan, including whether or not you need to stay in your plan’s network.

Is taking an ambulance to the ER free?

An ambulance ride is not free, but your insurance may cover some of the costs for the ride, as well as the emergency room visit. Check your plan benefits to see what out-of-pocket expenses you are responsible for when it comes to an ambulance ride and a visit to the ER.

Plan ahead for times you may need immediate medical care. Review the details of your health plan so you know the costs for an ER visit should you ever need it. Know when it’s best to go to the emergency room and when going somewhere else, like an urgent care center, convenience care clinic, your doctor, or even a virtual doctor visit (video chat/telehealth), is the right option that may save you time and money.

Close up of arms getting an IV in hospital bed

The information provided here is for educational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for proper medical care provided by a physician. Cigna assumes no responsibility for any circumstances arising out of the use, misuse, interpretation or application of this information. Always consult your doctor for appropriate examinations, treatment, testing, and care recommendations. In an emergency, dial 911 or visit the nearest emergency room.