EMTALA Law and Legal Definition

EMTALA is the abbreviation for Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act. Congress enacted the Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act or EMTALA (the Act) in 1986 to ensure public access to emergency services regardless of ability to pay. It was passed as part of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) much of which dealt with medicare issues. EMTALA is one of the most comprehensive laws guaranteeing nondiscriminatory access to emergency medical care and thus to the health care system. Even though its initial language covered the care of emergency medical conditions only, by the interpretations of the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA) and court decisions, the Act now applies to virtually all aspects of patient care in the hospital setting. The Act does not pre-empt any state or local law, except to the extent that such a law directly conflicts with EMTALA.

The EMTLA Act was enacted to prevent the practice of patient dumping whereby uninsured patients were transferred, solely for financial reasons, from private to public hospitals without consideration of their medical condition or stability for the transfer. The Act provides that any hospital that has an emergency room and receiving federal funding must provide an appropriate medical screening examination to determine whether or not an emergency medical condition exists and stabilize the condition of those patients who are found to have an emergency medical condition before transferring them to other facilities. This is however subject to with certain exceptions like when a critically ill child is brought to the emergency department. The statute generally restricts transfers of unstabilized patients, and authorizes both civil fines and a private cause of action for violation of the statute. Furthermore, the law prohibits any participating hospital from delaying such screening examination or further care “in order to inquire about the individual's method of payment or insurance status”. Another important mandate is that participating hospitals that has specialized capabilities or facilities shall not refuse to accept an appropriate transfer of an individual who requires such specialized capabilities, if the hospital has the capacity to treat the individual. This provision known as the reverse-dumping provision prevents specialized hospitals, from accepting in transfer only of those patients with the ability to pay for their services.