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Why Outpatient Surgery Centers Are Vital to Obamacare

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Are you planning a surgical procedure?

If so, you may want consider so-called "ambulatory" medical centers -- the outpatient surgical centers making a run at hospitals' surgery monopoly that are the topic of a study in the current issue of Health Affairs by health economists Elizabeth Munnich of the University of Louisville and Stephen Parente of the University of Minnesota.

The economists tracked Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data for 52,000 surgical visits at 437 facilities over four years, finding that ambulatory center surgical patients saved an average 25% in costs compared with hospital surgery bills -- a range between $363 and $1,000.

They also found that, despite the lower costs, patient satisfaction outcomes were "just as satisfactory" as hospital surgical outcomes.

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That could be a big deal as more health care consumers compete for surgical times at hospitals and create backlogs. In other words, the good news is that 25 million Americans will be added to health insurance rolls in the next few years as a result of the Affordable Care Act; the bad news is that this adds 25 million consumers to the competition for quality surgical care.

That's where outpatient surgery centers can help, Munnich and Parente say. Their data also help explain the increasing popularity of ambulatory centers.

"Ambulatory surgery centers are a high-quality, lower-cost substitute for hospitals as venues for outpatient surgery," Munnich said. "Their increased use may generate substantial cost savings, helping achieve the ACA's goals of reducing the cost and improving the quality of health care."

The study says demand for non-hospital surgical procedures is booming. In 1981, for example, outpatient procedures accounted for 11% of surgeries. By 2011, Munnich and Parente say, that was 60%.

The study says the number of ambulatory centers is expected to grow by between 8% and 16% through 2021.

"During the past 30 years outpatient surgery has become an increasingly important part of medical care in the United States," the study says. "The number of outpatient procedures has risen dramatically since 1981, and the majority of surgeries performed in the United States now take place in outpatient settings. [We believe] ambulatory surgery centers provide a lower-cost alternative to hospitals as venues for outpatient surgeries."

The message from the Health Affairs study is simple: If you're heading into surgery, explore all your options and make sure to ask your doctor and your health insurance company about outpatient surgery centers.

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