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Can a Hospital Turn Away a Woman in Labor?

by | Apr 11, 2022 | Birth Injuries |


Can a hospital turn away a woman in labor? Under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), a U.S. hospital with an emergency room (ER) cannot. This federal law requires hospitals to offer delivery services to women who arrive in active labor, no matter their age, ethnicity, health status, or ability to pay for service. Many hospitals still turn away or refuse to treat women who arrive in active labor, despite the EMTALA provisions. Violation of EMTALA provisions endangers the health and life of both the mother and infant. 

If you or your child suffered health complications after a hospital turned you away while in active labor, you might be a victim of medical malpractice. A medical malpractice attorney can look at the specific facts of your situation to establish whether you have enough grounds to pursue compensation through a medical malpractice claim or lawsuit.

Can an ER Legally Refuse Treatment? 

Today, most hospitals have a legal duty to offer emergency care to any person who requires it, even if he or she cannot afford the treatment. In the past, private hospitals were notorious for refusing to treat patients who could not pay, as there were no laws prohibiting such conduct. 

Private hospitals would transfer patients to public medical facilities. This transfer practice is called “dumping.” Hospitals even turned away patients with life-threatening medical emergencies. Many patients lost their lives or suffered an exacerbation of their health issues. 

In response, the federal government passed EMTALA, a law prohibiting “dumping”,  in 1986. This federal law requires private facilities that accept funds through public programs like Medicaid and Medicare to offer emergency treatment to patients requiring it, whether they can pay or not. It also requires hospitals to stabilize a patient before transferring him or her to another hospital or denying additional treatment. 

It’s important to note that EMTALA rules do not apply to all medical facilities. Hospitals without ERs, medical laboratories, and private doctor’s offices, for instance, are not obligated to offer emergency treatment. Hospital-linked urgent care clinics are, however, subject to EMTALA provisions because of the recent amendments and court rulings.

EMTALA requires a hospital to treat you, but it does not grant you the right to immediate care. Emergency room nurses have the necessary training to evaluate patients’ medical needs and provide treatment on an emergency basis. Waiting for a few hours to get your sprained ankle treated does not qualify as denied treatment, especially if there are other patients with more critical medical emergencies.

Hospitals can legally refuse to provide you with emergency treatment under certain circumstances. A hospital can deny you treatment if they determine you exhibit drug-seeking behavior. If you have illusions of suffering from a medical condition but are not ill, a hospital can refuse to treat you. A hospital can also deny you emergency treatment if you display dangerous or violent conduct. 

When Can a Doctor Refuse To Treat a Patient?

Private doctors are not subject to EMTALA provisions. These private medical providers can deny patients medical care for virtually any reason, including lack of means to pay, without legal consequences. Private doctors, however, are barred from denying treatment based on illegal discrimination. Discrimination based on age, gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, religion, or nationality is also illegal. 

A private doctor can refuse to treat a new patient if: 

  • The doctor’s office is not admitting any new patients 
  • You cannot afford the costs of the treatment plan you require 
  • The doctor’s office is not in the network of your health insurance provider
  • The doctor has terminated treatment services for patients with your medical needs 
  • You are (or your spouse is) a medical malpractice attorney

A private doctor may refuse to treat you, as an existing patient, if you have outstanding bills for previous treatments or the doctor is no longer taking your health insurance. Displaying recurrent drug-seeking behavior or dangerous conduct are instances in which a doctor can refuse to treat an existing patient.

The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA)

Under EMTALA, hospitals and urgent care clinics must provide treatment to patients with emergency medical needs and women in active labor. This federal law defines an emergency medical need as any health concern with a quick start and symptoms. 

Extreme pain, mental disruption, and drug withdrawal syndrome are some examples of symptoms that require emergency treatment. While the act describes various symptoms that require emergency treatment, it specifically prohibits hospitals from refusing treatment to women in labor. 

EMTALA provisions require hospitals to treat and stabilize patients before releasing or transferring them to other medical facilities. These provisions also require hospitals to use appropriate medical transport when transporting patients to other facilities. 

How Can a Medical Malpractice Attorney Help?

Determining the Validity of Your Medical Malpractice Claim 

A medical malpractice attorney will carefully assess the facts of the medical malpractice incident to determine if you were wrongfully denied treatment while in labor. 

Determining the Value of Your Medical Malpractice Claim 

Your attorney will consider various factors when calculating your claim value,  including the type and severity of the injuries you and your child suffered. The attorney will account for easily quantifiable damages (economic damages) and non-quantifiable damages (non-economic damages). Plaintiffs may recover these two types of damages in birth injury cases

Handling the Paperwork and Filing a Claim 

Your attorney will prepare, evaluate, and respond to all the necessary paperwork in a medical malpractice claim. The lawyer will also file the claim correctly and within your state’s filing deadline. 

Communicating and Negotiating with the Insurer 

Your attorney will communicate with the insurer on your behalf. He or she will also negotiate with the insurance company to obtain a fair settlement for you. 

Initiating a Lawsuit and Arguing Your Case During Trial 

Your attorney will file a lawsuit if negotiations are unproductive. The attorney will present your medical malpractice case to the jury, and cross-examine witnesses to help you win your case.