Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Health Service Hospitals

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Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act (EMTALA).
In 1986, Congress enacted the Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act (EMTALA) to ensure public access to emergency services regardless of ability to pay. Section 1867 of the Social Security Act imposes specific obligations on Medicare-participating hospitals that offer emergency services to provide a medical screening examination (MSE) when a request is made for examination or treatment for an emergency medical condition (EMC), including active labor, regardless of an individual's ability to pay. Hospitals are then required to provide stabilizing treatment for patients with EMCs. If a hospital is unable to stabilize a patient within its capability, or if the patient requests, an appropriate transfer should be implemented. EMTALA applies to "participating hospitals." The statute defines "participating hospitals" as those that accept payment from the Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) under the Medicare program. However, in practical terms, EMTALA applies to virtually all hospitals in the U.S., with the exception of the Shriners Hospitals for Children, Indian Health Service hospitals, and Veterans Affairs hospitals. The combined payments of Medicare and Medicaid, $602 billion in 2004, or roughly 44% of all medical expenditures in the U.S., make not participating in EMTALA impractical for nearly all hospitals. EMTALA's provisions apply to all patients, and not just to Medicare patients. Congress passed EMTALA to combat the practice of "patient dumping," i.e., refusal to treat people because of inability to pay or insufficient insurance, or transferring or discharging emergency patients on the basis of high anticipated diagnosis and treatment costs. The law applies when an individual with a medical emergency "and a request is made on the individual's behalf for examination or treatment for a medical condition.
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