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Patient Dumping and Emergency Care Under the Affordable Care Act

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For decades, a large portion of our nation's total cost of healthcare is attributed to the cost of providing emergency care to patients who lack insurance or another means to pay. For 25 years, any hospital receiving Medicare funds has been required by the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act to provide at least a minimal standard of care for anyone who shows up at its emergency room, regardless of ability to pay.

Unfortunately, some hospitals have tried reducing their costs for providing inpatient treatment with a practice called "patient dumping". Patient dumping typically occurs in one of two ways:

  • Directing patients to other health care facilities
  • Refusing to treat patients

Whatever hue of the spectrum patient dumping hits, it is equally illegal - and equally actionable.

For-profit hospitals dumping patients on other health care facilities run the risk that the patient will receive inferior care because of the already overburdened staff of "safety net" hospitals. The for-profit facilities profit at the expense of non-profits. When hospitals refuse to treat patients who come to them for emergency care, the facility puts their lives at risk, and in most cases assure the patient's health will only worsen.

Proponents of the Affordable Care Act - commonly called Obamacare - assert that most reasons for patient dumping are eliminated by the Act. Because everyone officially participates in the program, all bills should be covered. Hospitals will no longer feel the need pass the costs of treating the uninsured or underinsured on to those who are insured.

However, until the provisions fully kick in, the practice of patient dumping may escalate. Victims of patient dumping need to assert their rights to make sure that hospitals that engage in this illegal activity find dumping more costly than complying with the law.

Source: Health Affairs, "The Good, The Bad And The Possible For The US Safety Net," Chris Fleming, August 6, 2012.

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