Federal Law May Protect Urgent-Care Patients

The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, or
EMTALA, is a federal law that was put in place to make sure hospitals don’t
“dump” emergency patients who may be indigent or uninsured by refusing to
examine or treat them or by sending them to other hospitals. Instead, EMTALA
requires that hospitals thoroughly screen all patients who report to emergency
rooms and, if they are found to have a serious medical condition, to properly
stabilize them before transferring or releasing them.

Hospitals that fail to comply can be hit with significant
fines. Additionally, the patient may be able to bring the hospital to court,
obtain damages and have his or her attorney’s fees paid. Plus, depending on the
state, patients may have more time to bring a claim under EMTALA than they
would have to bring a standard malpractice claim in state court.

Now a recent ruling by a federal judge in Rhode Island
suggests that EMTALA covers not only emergency-room visits, but also off-campus
urgent-care clinics that are affiliated with hospitals.

In that case, a 49-year-old woman reported to the
urgent/walk-in care clinic at a local hospital complaining of severe chest pain
and pain in her right arm. Shortly beforehand, she’d texted co-workers that she
was going to the “ER” to get checked out for possible heart-attack symptoms.
The doctor diagnosed her with reflux and she was sent home with a
“gastrointestinal cocktail.” She died the next day of cardiovascular disease.

Her estate sued the hospital that operated the clinic for
both malpractice and for violation of EMTALA.

The hospital tried to get the case thrown out, arguing that
EMTALA didn’t apply because the clinic wasn’t an “emergency care facility.”

But the judge disagreed, finding that because it held itself
out as treating emergency medical conditions on an urgent basis without a
scheduled appointment, it fit the definition. In fact, the court said, this
particular patient, based on her texts to co-workers, thought she was going to
an ER when she visited the clinic. Thus her estate’s claim could proceed.

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