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By Vicki Shabo, Director of Work and Family Programs, National Partnership for Women & Families

Health reform has underscored the imperative to increase access to health care, improve quality and reduce costs. According to a thought-provoking new report released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) this week, paid sick days can – and should – play a significant role in reaching these goals.

Paid Sick Days and Health: Cost Savings from Reduced Emergency Room Visits finds that, regardless of workers' access to health insurance, there are undeniable connections between the ways in which private sector workers use the health care system and whether they have access to paid sick days. And these connections can result in significant costs for working families’ health, their financial security and the effectiveness of the system overall.

Currently, more than 40 percent of the private sector workforce – and more than 80 percent of the lowest-wage workers – don’t have paid sick days. These workers often can’t afford to lose income or risk their jobs by taking unpaid time off to get the medical care they need. They are left with no choice but to use expensive emergency rooms to get primary care for themselves or their families during non-work hours, or to delay getting care until their health problems worsen and they need care for more severe conditions – at even greater costs.

IWPR’s findings demonstrate that the barrier that prevents workers without paid sick days from getting timely, affordable care is a huge and costly problem for workers, their families and our nation. According to the report, workers with paid sick days are less likely than those without to use hospital emergency rooms or to delay care for themselves or family members. They also report better health. The analysis reveals that if all workers had paid sick days, 1.3 million emergency room visits could be prevented each year. The country would save an astounding $1.1 billion in health care costs annually. And more than $500 million of these savings would be to public programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicare and Medicaid.

Emergency room use is a significant source of rising health care costs, according to the report. In fact, emergency room use has risen 30 percent in the last decade. Controlling these costs could benefit our health care system in important ways. And, as IWPR concludes, increasing workers’ access to paid sick days is a “low-cost route to reining in emergency department costs – while simultaneously improving health.” In other words, paid sick days are a win-win.

With this new report, IWPR has pinpointed a modest, common sense way to increase access to health care and reduce costs. Congress should take note of the new data and the growing support for paid sick days in states and cities across the country and move quickly to pass the Healthy Families Act. By doing so, it will increase access to paid sick days, promote the health of working families and save money for taxpayers and the government. There couldn’t be a better time to take this essential step.

Read the full Institute for Women’s Policy Research report here.

Cross-posted at the National Partnership for Women & Families.

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