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Patients' Rights

Right To Treatment

In an emergency situation, a patient has a right to treatment, regardless of ability to pay. If a situation is likely to cause death, serious injury, or disability if not attended to promptly, it is an emergency. Cardiac arrest, heavy bleeding, profound shock, severe head injuries, and acute psychotic states are some examples of emergencies. Less obvious situations can also be emergencies: broken bones, fever, and cuts requiring stitches may also require immediate treatment.

Both public and private hospitals have a duty to administer medical care to a person experiencing an emergency. If a hospital has emergency facilities, it is legally required to provide appropriate treatment to a person experiencing an emergency. If the hospital is unable to provide emergency services, it must provide a referral for appropriate treatment. Hospitals cannot refuse to treat prospective patients on the basis of race, religion, or national origin, or refuse to treat someone with HIV or AIDS.

In 1986, Congress passed the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) (42 U.S.C.A. § 1395dd), which established criteria for emergency services and criteria for safe transfer of patients between hospitals. This statute was designed to prevent "patient dumping," that is, transferring undesirable patients to another facility. The law applies to all hospitals receiving federal funds, such as MEDICARE (almost all do). The law requires hospitals to provide a screening exam to determine if an emergency condition exists, provide stabilizing treatment to any emergency patient or to any woman in active labor before transfer, and continue treatment until a patient can be discharged or transferred without harm. It also delineates strict guidelines for the transfer of a patient who cannot be stabilized. A hospital that negligently or knowingly and willfully violates any of these provisions can be terminated or suspended from Medicare. The physician, the hospital, or both can also be penalized up to $50,000 for each knowing violation of the law.

One of the first cases brought under EMTALA involved a doctor who transferred a woman in active labor to a hospital 170 miles away. The woman delivered a healthy baby during the trip, but the doctor was fined $20,000 for the improper transfer of the woman. In addition to federal laws such as EMTALA, states may also impose by regulation or statute a duty on hospitals to administer emergency care.

There is no universal right to be admitted to a hospital in a nonemergency situation. In nonemergency cases, admission rights depend largely on the specific hospital, but basing admission on ability to pay is severely limited by statutes, regulations, and judicial decisions. For example, most hospitals obtained financial assistance from the federal government for construction; these hospitals are required to provide a reasonable volume of services to persons unable to pay. The amount of services to be provided is set by regulation, and the obligation continues for 20 years after construction is completed. Patients must be advised of the hospital's obligation under the law, or the hospital may be foreclosed from suing to collect on the bill. In addition, many states prohibit hospitals from denying admission based solely on inability to pay; some courts have made similar rulings against public hospitals based on hospital charters

Under EMTALA hospitals are required to provide emergency treatment until a patient can be discharged or transferred without harm. The act was intended to curb the practice of "patient dumping."

and public policy reasons. Hospitals are also prohibited from requiring a deposit from a Medicare or MEDICAID patient.

Once a patient has been duly admitted to a hospital, she or he has a right to leave at any time, or the hospital could be liable for FALSE IMPRISONMENT. This is so even if the patient has not paid the bill or if the patient wants to leave against all medical advice. In rare cases, such as contagious disease cases, public health authorities may have state statutory or regulatory authority to quarantine a patient. In addition, state laws governing involuntary commitment of the mentally ill may be used to prevent a person of unsound mind from leaving the hospital if a qualified psychiatrist determines that the person is a danger to himself or herself or to the lives of others.

A doctor familiar with a patient's condition determines when a patient is ready for discharge and signs a written order to that effect. If the patient disagrees with a decision to discharge, she or he has the right to demand a consultation with a different physician before the order is carried out. The decision to discharge must be based solely on the patient's medical condition and not on nonpayment of medical bills.

In the mid-1990s, concern over maternity patients being discharged just a few hours after giving birth prompted legislation at both the state and federal levels. In September 1996, President BILL CLINTON signed a law ensuring a 48-hour hospital stay for a woman who gives birth vaginally and a 96-hour stay for a woman who has a caesarean section, unless the patient and the doctor agree to an earlier discharge. A number of state legislatures have passed similar laws as well.

With the rise of MANAGED CARE and Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), patients faced new issues involving the right to treatment. HMOs may deny authorization for expensive or experimental treatments, or for treatments provided outside the network of approved physicians. HMOs contend that they must control costs and make decisions that benefit the largest number of members. In response, state legislatures have enacted HMO regulations that seek to give patients a process for appealing the denial of benefits. The HMOs have opposed these measures and have vigorously defended their denial of benefits in court.

In Moran v. Rush Prudential HMO, Inc., 536 U.S. 355, 122 S.Ct. 2151, 153 L.Ed.2d 375 (2002), the Supreme Court in a 5–4 decision upheld an Illinois law that required HMOs to provide independent review of disputes between the primary care physician and the HMO. The law mandated that the HMO must pay for services deemed medically necessary by the independent reviewer. Most importantly, the court ruled that the federal EMPLOYEE RETIREMENT INCOME SECURITY ACT (ERISA) did not PREEMPT the Illinois law. ERISA is an extremely complex and technical set of provisions that seek to protect employee benefit programs. The decision was significant because it empowered other states to enact similar laws that give patients more rights in obtaining treatment

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