QUESTION: We are revising our Medical Staff Bylaws and a question has come up about whether we could add a “years of service” exemption that let’s physicians opt-out of their ED call obligations if they have been on the Medical Staff for more than 20 years. Is this okay under EMTALA?
ANSWER: It is. CMS recognized the practice of giving age or year’s of service based exemptions in the 2003 Preamble to the updated EMTALA Regulations, stating:
“We understand that some hospitals exempt senior medical staff physicians from being on call. This exemption is typically written into the hospital’s medical staff bylaws or the hospital’s rules and regulations, and recognizes a physician’s active years of service (for example, 20 or more years) or age (for example, 60 years of age or older), or a combination of both. We wish to clarify that providing such exemptions to members of hospitals’ medical staff does not necessarily violate EMTALA. On the contrary, we believe that a hospital is responsible for maintaining an on-call list in a manner that best meets the needs of its patients as long as the exemption does not affect patient care adversely. Thus, CMS allows hospitals flexibility in the utilization of their emergency personnel.” (Emphasis added).
Obviously, the highlighted language indicates that while such exemptions are permissible under EMTALA, the exemptions cannot interfere with a hospital’s ability to maintain adequate on-call services.
Therefore, we recommend the MEC approve any request for such an exemption, since allowing an exemption to take effect automatically could create EMTALA problems, depending on the number of remaining physicians in the specialty. Furthermore, we also recommend including language that states the MEC can require a physician who was previously given an exemption to return to the call schedule (on a temporary or permanent basis) if the needs of the Hospital change.