August 16, 2018

QUESTION:        What responsibility does the hospital have under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (“EMTALA”) to stabilize an individual with an emergency medical condition once he/she is admitted as an inpatient at the hospital?

ANSWER:            The short answer is that the stabilization obligation under EMTALA is satisfied and ends upon patient admission.

Under EMTALA, it is required that when an individual comes to an emergency department, the hospital must provide an appropriate medical screening examination within the capability of the hospital’s emergency department and, if an emergency medical condition is determined to exist, provide any necessary stabilizing treatment, or an appropriate transfer.  However, EMTALA further provides that if the hospital admits the individual as an inpatient for further treatment, the hospital’s obligation to stabilize ends (42 C.F.R. § 489.24(a)(1)(ii)).  In fact, the Interpretive Guidelines to EMTALA reiterate that EMTALA does not apply to hospital inpatients.  The existing hospital Conditions of Participation protect individuals who are already inpatients of a hospital and who experience an emergency medical condition.

In fact, in a recent case noted in last week’s version of the Health Law Express, Walley v. York Hospital, the court looked to the history of EMTALA and its application to inpatients.  Back in 2002, recognizing a difference of opinion among courts, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) did propose applying the stabilization requirement to inpatients admitted in order to stabilize emergency medical conditions.  However, after negative public comments and consideration of federal case law, CMS, in 2003, adopted the version that is now in effect, that the stabilization requirement is satisfied and ends upon patient admission as far as federal remedy is concerned.  After reexamining the issue in 2012, CMS once again chose to leave the regulation as it stands.  (Walley v. York Hosp., CIVIL NO. 2:18-CV-126-DBH (D. Me. July 27, 2018).)

However, it is important to note that CMS and case law recognize that a hospital must admit an individual as an inpatient in good faith to avoid liability under EMTALA. Specifically, if a hospital did not admit an individual as an inpatient in good faith with the intention of providing treatment, such that the hospital used the inpatient admission as a means to avoid EMTALA requirements, then the hospital is considered liable under EMTALA and actions may be pursued.