October 12, 2017

QUESTION:        Our hospital operates an emergency room and has an inpatient behavioral health unit.  Our emergency room has evaluated a patient with mental illness on numerous occasions, typically on “emergency certificates” under our state law.  In the past, this particular patient has been violent and assaultive toward staff in the emergency room.  Under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (“EMTALA”), are we permitted to refuse to admit this patient to our behavioral health unit the next time he comes to the emergency room with a psychiatric emergency?

ANSWER:            That’s a very good question, and for any individual hospital, the best answer probably comes from its CMS Regional Office.  Each Regional Office has EMTALA “jurisdiction” over its region.  It is the Regional Office that determines whether there has been an EMTALA violation or not if a complaint is received.

Under EMTALA, the hospital is required to perform a medical screening examination on the patient when he is brought to the emergency room to determine if the patient has an emergency medical condition.  The definition of “emergency medical condition” under EMTALA includes a psychiatric emergency medical condition.

If the patient has a psychiatric emergency medical condition, the EMTALA duty on the hospital is to stabilize that emergency medical condition if the hospital has the capacity and the capability to do so.  Because this hospital has a behavioral health unit, it has the services and resources to stabilize a psychiatric emergency medical condition.  (That’s assuming the behavioral health unit has an available bed.)

Many hospitals do not have forensic units, nor are they staffed to address violent psychiatric patients.  The EMTALA regulations state that a hospital is to provide stabilizing treatment within the capabilities of the staff and facilities available at the hospital.  Thus, there is an EMTALA argument to make that treating a violent psychiatric patient does not come within the capabilities of a hospital’s behavioral health unit.

However, in our discussions with one CMS Regional Office, a representative informed us that the Regional Office expects all behavioral health units to be able to handle a certain level of violence in a psychiatric patient.  If a complaint was ever brought about the rejection of a patient with a psychiatric emergency medical condition, the Regional Office would have its own psychiatrist review and determine whether the violence level of the patient exceeded the behavioral health unit’s capabilities and resources.  If the Regional Office psychiatrist felt that the behavioral health unit could have managed the patient, there would be an EMTALA violation.

Notwithstanding the EMTALA implications of the situation, the most important consideration is the safety of the staff of the hospital and the patient.  A more proactive approach might be useful in which representatives from the hospital (including its security staff) sit down to discuss a method to handle violent patients in general.  The development of this method may be assisted by involving the local police, especially if the circumstances involve a patient or patients who have been assaultive in the past and/or have threatened to assault hospital staff in the future.

This is a very difficult issue, but a well-defined plan or policy that includes input from all those potentially involved would help in understanding the issue, achieving buy-in, complying with the law, and, most importantly, protecting staff and patients.

For more information on this topic, join Susan Lapenta and Phil Zarone on November 7, 2017 for the On-Call and EMTALA Policies audio conference (part of the Horty, Springer & Mattern Grand Rounds audio conference series).