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Obamacare could be a tonic for overtaxed ERs

Some early signs hint that the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, is relieving hospitals' financial pressure by reducing unpaid bills at America's overburdened emergency rooms.

The rate of ER visits in the U.S. has been on a steady rise for years, with many uninsured people using ERs as their primary place to receive health care, often for nonemergency conditions.

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Last year, about one-fourth of the nearly 65,000 patients treated in the ER at Onslow Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville, N.C., were uninsured, costing the hospital over $7 million in unpaid bills.

"It's just considered business as usual," Amy Sousa, who works at the hospital, told CBS affiliate WNCT. "It's how we operate."

But a new study by researchers at Stanford University suggests that fewer people ages 19 to 25 are using ERs due to a provision in the ACA that allows those young adults to retain coverage under their parent's health insurance plans.

The study looked at data from state hospital records in Florida, California and New York, before and after the law was implemented. And it found that the 19-25 age group had a decrease of 2.7 ER visits per 1,000 people, or a relative change of minus 2.1 percent, under ACA.

"Our results suggest that the ACA's dependent coverage provision is associated with a relative decrease in the number of ED (emergency department) visits for young adults," the study concludes.

An analysis of California state records by the Los Angeles Times also shows the number of ER visits at public hospitals in Los Angeles County -- the nation's most densely populated -- slowed down during the first three months of expanded medical coverage under the ACA.

During those three months, the ER rate rose 1.7 percent, compared to increases of 3 percent last year and 5 percent in both 2011 and 2012.

Health care experts are closely watching and analyzing all that data, trying to determine Obamacare's long-term effect on not only ER usage and costs, but also on the nation's overall health care system.