What the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act Means to Kentucky Residents

February 20, 2013

Because of the slow economy, many Kentuckians have lost their jobs and the health insurance that came with their employment. Their unemployment has also left them unable to purchase their own health insurance, which leaves them uncovered. So what happens if they have a medical emergency and have to go to the hospital?

Thanks to the federal government, in many emergency situations hospitals are not allowed to refuse treatment because of the patient's inability to pay. The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) was enacted in 1986, and has been revised throughout the years. The basic premise is that if someone has a medical emergency and that their health is rapidly declining or their life is at stake, the medical facility they go to has to treat them, even if they cannot pay. This act also covers women who are in active labor. The treating hospital decides what constitutes a medical emergency, and some hospitals may attempt to find some reason to avoid treating someone who is not able to pay so they are not stuck with unpaid debt. Other hospitals will treat even if they think it is not an emergency so that they do not have to worry about negative consequences if the patient's condition worsens because of non-treatment, such as a medical malpractice or wrongful death lawsuit.

In a recent case in Louisiana, a man went to one hospital after suffering a heart attack. He had a procedure to unblock one of his arteries, but it was decided that he needed a heart transplant. While waiting for the transplant, a device was to be implanted at a different hospital to help keep him alive. He was transported to the other hospital for the surgery, then was told they wouldn't perform the surgery because he didn't have a way to pay for it. In the interim, the patient's health declined, and he eventually passed away. His family members have filed a wrongful death suit against the hospital claiming they should have done the procedure regardless of his ability to pay because the victim's life depended on it.

The EMTALA does not mean anyone who cannot pay gets free emergency medical treatment. The hospital still bills the patient who is ultimately responsible for paying it. But it does help those who are unable to pay at the moment they are having a medical emergency. Amendments to the bill have been added to provide further coverage for those who may not be able to afford medical treatment. Hospitals are required to provide the same level of care to someone who is unable to pay as they would who someone who can pay. They also cannot help someone who can pay their bills before someone who cannot if the one who can't pay was admitted to the facility first.

If you or a loved one may have been denied medical treatment because of an inability to pay, and there were significant health consequences as a result, it is important to speak to a Kentucky medical malpractice attorney as soon as possible. There is a limit to the length of time you have to file a legal claim against the hospital, called the statute of limitations. The attorneys at Miller & Falkner have experience in helping Kentuckians with all types of medical malpractice claims.


Ochsner sued for wrongful death after allegedly refusing medical treatment; The Louisiana Record; Kyle Barnett; January 7, 2013