Can hospitals turn away patients?

Hospitals can turn away patients, but only in non-emergency situations. Privately-owned hospitals can turn you away in a non-emergency, but public hospitals cannot refuse care.

Free Insurance Quote Comparison

secured lock Secured with SHA-256 Encryption

Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

Full Bio →

Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jun 29, 2022

Advertiser Disclosure

It’s all about you. We want to help you make the right legal decisions.

We strive to help you make confident insurance and legal decisions. Finding trusted and reliable insurance quotes and legal advice should be easy. This doesn’t influence our content. Our opinions are our own.

Editorial Guidelines: We are a free online resource for anyone interested in learning more about legal topics and insurance. Our goal is to be an objective, third-party resource for everything legal and insurance related. We update our site regularly, and all content is reviewed by experts.

Can hospitals turn you away? Privately-owned hospitals may turn away patients in a non-emergency, but public hospitals cannot refuse care. Public hospitals, funded by taxpayer dollars, are held to a different standard than privately owned for-profit hospitals. This means that a public hospital is the best option for those without health insurance or the means to pay for care. A public hospital cannot refuse to treat a patient without insurance.

The Emergency Medical and Treatment Labor Act (EMTLA)

Can an emergency room turn you away?

Public and private hospitals alike are prohibited by law from denying a patient care in an emergency. The Emergency Medical and Treatment Labor Act (EMTLA) passed by Congress in 1986 explicitly forbids the denial of care to indigent or uninsured patients based on a lack of ability to pay. It also prohibits unnecessary transfers while care is being administered and prohibits the suspension of care once it is initiated, provisions that prevent dumping patients who cannot pay on other hospitals. The treatment of indigent and uninsured patients is a huge financial drain upon the health system, especially in areas where no public hospitals are available.

While EMTLA does not prohibit care providers from asking about a patient’s ability to pay, it does make it very clear that emergency treatment cannot be delayed while ability to pay is being checked. Essentially, the law establishes a “treat first, ask questions later” policy. This policy serves a dual purpose by protecting both private hospitals and patients.

Can a hospital deny treatment?

Private hospitals are protected because they can deny non-emergency care based upon ability to pay and patients are protected because refusal or delay of emergency care based on means to pay is illegal.

When can a hospital refuse treatment?

In some cases, healthcare providers may refuse to treat patients who are abusive, when such treatment falls outside their scope of practice, and when a patient’s care comes into conflict with their duties.

Free Insurance Quote Comparison

Enter your ZIP code below to compare cheap insurance rates.

secured lock Secured with SHA-256 Encryption

Patient Protection Under The EMTLA

What is to prevent a hospital from denying care and then lying about the severity of a patient’s condition? A schedule of stiff fines included in EMTLA is intended to discourage lying about a patient’s condition with extreme prejudice. Both hospitals and individual doctors can be held liable under EMTLA, doubling the potential financial punishment. In a business that, for better or for worse, revolves around the bottom line, the threat of fines in excess of $50,000 is enough to give most hospitals and doctors pause before downplaying a patient’s condition.

Imagine a pregnant woman without health insurance living in an area that does not have a public hospital. If she goes into labor and the closest hospital is privately-run, the EMTLA requires that the hospital must admit the woman regardless of her ability to pay as childbirth is considered an emergency situation. The woman’s labor and delivery care, regardless of length and complication, should be indistinguishable from that of a fully insured patient. This equal treatment will continue until the end of the emergency (i.e. after the child is born and there are no complications).

Hospital Bills

Hospitals are not shy about trying to collect from uninsured emergency patients. Their efforts can involve the hospital’s internal billing department, collection agencies, and even lawsuits. The collection process can be unpleasant: wages may be garnished and liens may be instituted on property. Hospitals, like any business, do not like getting stiffed on the tab, no matter what the law says.

Going back to the previous example of the uninsured mother, the privately-run hospital that delivered the baby can resume payment talks once it is clear that there are no further complications. At this point, the hospital’s billing department may take a harder line and discharge the woman within 24 hours. Once the emergency (childbirth) has been resolved, the hospital is under no obligation to provide treatment to the mother or her child. Elective procedures such as circumcision will likely not be an option and the hospital will continue to attempt to bill the woman for the services provided.

Can hospitals refuse service?

Public hospitals may not deny patient care based on ability to pay (or lack thereof). Private hospitals may, in non-emergency situations, deny or discontinue care. If you think you were unlawfully denied care or your treatment was not adequate because of lack of insurance or inability to pay, contact a local malpractice attorney to discuss your options and see if a hospital can refuse service.

Free Insurance Quote Comparison

Enter your ZIP code below to compare cheap insurance rates.

secured lock Secured with SHA-256 Encryption