ER aid guaranteed -- even if you can't pay
You're unexpectedly taken ill, or you're injured in an accident.
You need a fast trip to the emergency room, but . . . your finances
are shaky and you're not insured.
What do you do?
First -- by all means -- get treated. And, if at all possible,
get to a hospital emergency room. Even if you're uninsured and broke,
you can get emergency treatment when you need it under recent changes
in the decades-old federal rules. What's more, a number of consumer
groups and patient-help organizations such as the Health Assistance
Partnership monitor and lobby for those rights under the law.
Simply stated, hospitals must provide emergency treatment before
they ask how you'll pay for it. But patients should be aware hospitals
fall into two groups. One will treat you first and worry about collecting
later. The other group, by law, is obliged to treat you as a charity
case if you can't pay.
And don't forget: This is for emergency treatment only.
Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act
Under this law, also called EMTALA, patients with an emergency medical
condition are entitled to a medical screening examination, stabilizing
treatment and appropriate transfers before they are questioned about
their ability to pay, explains Cheryl Fish-Parcham, a specialist with
the Washington-based Health Assistance Partnership, part of Families
"In an emergency, the hospital staff can't delay treatment
just to get information about you, and they can't discourage you
from remaining for further evaluation," she adds. In other
words, they have to treat you and they can't delay treatment while
you try to scrape up the cash.
Conditions such as severe pain, major impairment of body function,
serious dysfunction of any body organ or any condition that left
untreated could put your health in serious jeopardy are regarded
as emergency medical conditions. A pregnant women whose own health
or that of her unborn baby is jeopardized is also considered an
If you request ER treatment but you say it isn't an emergency,
the hospital is only obliged to carry out screening to determine
whether it's an urgent health threat.
If the hospital staff can't stabilize the patient, they can transfer
the patient to another hospital, but only if the doctor in charge
certifies in writing that the risk involved in the transfer is outweighed
by the benefits.
Keep in mind the federal regulations guarantee you treatment when
you need it but they don't obligate the hospital to give you free
medical care or prohibit the hospital from billing you for any care
you do receive. In most cases, if you can pay later, you'll be required
to do so.
And make sure the aid you're seeking is from a hospital emergency
room. "New regulations which took effect last year make it
less clear about your entitlements to screening, emergency care
and transfers if you go to an outpatient facility," warns Fish-Parcham.
"The regulations are only clear about emergency room services."