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.
QUESTION: We have a very small neurosurgery department at our hospital, where the active members of the medical staff are obligated to provide ED call. Assuming that we only have two neurosurgeons that are able to cover ED call, does this mean they must each take 180 days of call each year? Our physician leaders are telling us that this is a tremendous burden, but we do not want to violate EMTALA.
ANSWER: A tough question, made even tougher by the fact that CMS has provided very little guidance on the reasonableness of hospital call schedules. In fact, the best rule of thumb comes from historical guidance from CMS that CMS now specifically denounces!
To begin, it is important to keep in mind that CMS does not require 24/7/365 coverage. Instead, it uses a rather nebulous “all relevant” factors test to evaluate the reasonableness of a hospital’s coverage arrangements. Frankly, this is not a very helpful rule, so many organizations that we work with take a “rule of three” approach, as it relates to provider on-call responsibilities. This approach is based on prior, informal guidance from CMS that said if there were three physicians in a particular clinical specialty on a medical staff, the hospital had the obligation to provide emergency services on a 24/7/365 basis for that specialty. This has been extrapolated to mean that, in a single physician specialty, call would need to be provided only one-third of the time (i.e., 10 days/month). This would mean the hospital above would have neurosurgery coverage for 20 days out of the month.
While CMS has explicitly denied the rule of three ever existed, we think this is a relatively safe position to take in terms of EMTALA compliance. Of course, we have seen other facilities adopt a “rule of four” or even a “rule of five” where they have found the obligation created under the “rule of three” to be too burdensome or if there are other “relevant factors” that would justify another approach (e.g., the number of physicians available to take call, other demands on these physicians, frequency of emergency cases in that specialty, etc.).