EMTALA in the Post-Dobbs World
The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) requires hospitals with emergency departments and participating in Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) programs to provide medical screening, treatment and transfer for patients with emergency medical conditions (EMCs) or women in labor.1 EMTALA, which was enacted in 1986 to address concerns about patient dumping, went unnoticed for many years, but has garnered heightened attention as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and more recently, the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (Dobbs).2
EMTALA is a federal law and expressly preempts state laws with which it directly conflicts. After the Dobbs decision was officially published in June, a number of states implemented laws that prohibited or restricted access to reproductive care. Many of these laws include potential civil sanctions and criminal liability for healthcare providers offering or performing these services regardless of the circumstances, including emergency situations. The Biden Administration, in contrast, has taken action to preserve access to reproductive care through a number of executive and federal agency actions. These actions are intended by the federal government to apply in all states, including those states where restrictions have been put in place. Following this activity, litigation between the federal government and several states has ensued to address potential conflicts between federal laws requiring the provision of access and state laws that prohibit or restrict access to reproductive health services. A summary of the current EMTALA landscape is set forth below.
Under EMTALA, hospitals with emergency departments (EDs) must provide a medical screening examination to any individual who comes to the ED, regardless of insurance status. EMTALA prohibits hospitals with EDs from refusing to examine or treat individuals with an EMC. Upon provision of a medical screening examination, hospitals must provide necessary stabilizing treatment for EMCs and labor within the hospital’s capability. If the hospital is unable to properly treat or stabilize the patient, the hospital must provide an appropriate transfer to another medical facility.
Under EMTALA, an EMC includes “a medical condition manifesting itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity (including severe pain) such that the absence of immediate medical attention could reasonably be expected to result in:
(i) placing the health of the individual (or, with respect to a pregnant woman, the health of the woman or her unborn child) in serious jeopardy,
(ii) serious impairment to bodily functions, or
(iii) serious dysfunction of any bodily organ or part…”3
Many common pregnancy-related complications, such as preeclampsia or ectopic pregnancies, qualify as EMCs. However, certain state anti-abortion laws prohibit or criminalize abortions regardless of the existence of an EMC under federal law, which creates a potential conflict when an abortion is necessary to stabilize an EMC under EMTALA. As a result of this friction between state and federal law, EMTALA has received renewed attention at a federal and state level in recent months.
Executive Order on Protecting Access to Reproductive Healthcare Services
On July 8, 2022, after the Dobbs decision was officially issued, President Biden issued Executive Order 14076 (Executive Order), which directed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to submit a report identifying steps to ensure all patients, including pregnant women and women experiencing pregnancy loss, receive the full protections offered by EMTALA. The Executive Order also directed HHS to consider updates to guidance on obligations under EMTALA.
CMS Memorandum and HHS Letter to Healthcare Providers
On July 11, 2022, in response to the Executive Order, CMS published a memorandum to State Survey Agency Directors to restate existing guidance for hospital staff and physicians in light of new state laws that prohibit or restrict access to abortion (Memorandum). The Memorandum reinforced CMS’ view that:
EMTALA mandates that all patients who come to a EDs and request examination or treatment must receive an appropriate medical screening examination, stabilizing treatment, and transfer regardless of any state law restrictions about specific procedures,
Only physicians and qualified medical personnel may make the determination of an EMC,
Hospitals should ensure that all staff who interact with patients presenting to the ED are aware of the hospital’s obligations under EMTALA,
Hospitals may not cite state law or practice as the basis for transfer,
Physicians’ professional and legal duties under EMTALA preempt any conflicting state law or mandate,
If a physician believes that abortion is the stabilizing treatment necessary to resolve an EMC, the physician must provide that treatment, and
State law is preempted by EMTALA when it prohibits abortion and does not include an exception for the life and health of the pregnant person or has a more restrictive definition of EMC.
The Memorandum also clarified that pregnant patients may experience EMCs including, but not limited to, ectopic pregnancy, complications of pregnancy loss, or emergent hypertensive disorders, such as preeclampsia with severe features and that stabilizing treatment encompasses both medical and surgical interventions, such as methrotrexate therapy or dilation and curettage.
The Secretary of HHS also published on July 11, 2022 a letter to healthcare providers reminding them of their obligation to provide stabilizing medical treatment to their pregnant patients in accordance with EMTALA, regardless of the state in which the provider practices (Letter). The Letter also reiterated that:
any state laws or mandates which employ a more restrictive definition of EMC are preempted by EMTALA statute, and
the course of necessary stabilizing treatment is under the physician’s or other qualified medical personnel’s purview.
The State of Texas Sues the Biden Administration
On July 14, 2022, the Texas Attorney General brought suit against HHS and CMS to challenge the Memorandum and Letter relating to federal law obligations for pregnant patients.4 The complaint alleged that EMTALA does not preempt state law when state law prohibits abortion and does not include an exception for the life of the pregnant person or draws the exception more narrowly than the definition of EMC under EMTALA. Specifically, Texas sought to enforce a state statute, the Human Life Protection Act, which would ban and criminalize abortions unless a woman “has a life-threatening physical condition arising from pregnancy that places her ‘at risk of death or poses a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function unless the abortion is performed”(emphasis added).5 The complaint also alleged that EMTALA does not require a healthcare provider to perform an abortion if it is the stabilizing treatment necessary to resolve an EMC. On August 23, 2022, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas (Lubbock Division) blocked enforcement of the Memorandum and Letter in the State of Texas on the basis that federal guidance did not preempt state law, exceeded the authority of EMTALA, and was issued without a proper notice and comment period. The Court found that, because EMTALA is silent regarding abortion and “how stabilizing treatments must be provided when a doctor’s duties to a pregnant woman and her unborn child possibly conflict,” “there is no direct conflict” between federal and Texas law with the end result that “EMTALA leaves it to the states”.6
The Biden Administration Sues the State of Idaho
On August 2, 2022, the Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the State of Idaho, alleging violation of EMTALA. Under Idaho’s proposed abortion law, which was slated to go into effect on August 25th, the performance of all abortions are criminalized regardless of the reason for which they may be performed including to prevent the death of the pregnant woman.7 Instead, the law permits physicians to raise two affirmative defenses to avoid criminal liability:
(i) The physician determined, in h/her good faith medical judgment and based on the facts known to the physician at the time, that the abortion was necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman, and
(ii) Prior to the performance of the abortion, the pregnant woman reported the act of rape or incest to a law enforcement agency and provided a copy of such report to the physician.8
The DOJ’s complaint alleged that Idaho’s law does not provide a defense when the health of the pregnant patient is at stake, which is considered to fall within the definition of an EMC under EMTALA. In addition, the DOJ asserted that the fear of criminal prosecution may lead providers to avoid performing abortions even when it is a medically necessary treatment to prevent severe risk to the patient’s health. On August 24, 2022, the United States District Court for the District of Idaho found that Idaho’s law conflicted with EMTALA and granted the federal government a preliminary injunction blocking the enforcement of Idaho’s proposed abortion law.9 In contrast to the Northern District of Texas Court’s interpretation of the conflict between state law and EMTALA, the District Court of Idaho noted that found that Idaho’s criminal abortion statute deterred abortions given that it provided for an affirmative defense rather than an exception for the provision of emergency care and, therefore, obstructed EMTALA’s purpose.10
Looking to the Future
While EMTALA has been in place for decades, its applications in the post-Dobbs world continue to evolve and will be at the forefront in states with abortion restrictions, particularly where the scope of federal law obligations to provide stabilizing treatment for conditions that threaten the health of the pregnant patient conflict with state law exceptions or affirmative defenses.
The law, policy and regulatory climate surrounding the Dobbs decision is complex and quickly developing. The information included in this article is current as of writing, but it does not address all potential legal issues or jurisdictional differences, and the information presented may no longer be current. Readers should consult counsel regarding their specific situation.
1 42 U.S.C. §1395dd.
2 For additional information regarding the Dobbs decision, please refer to the following resources: Supreme Court Decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Overturns 50 Years of Precedent on Abortion Laws and Rights | Healthcare Law Blog (sheppardhealthlaw.com), WHLC Dobbs Series Part 1 Where are we now?: Sheppard Mullin Webinar.
3 42 U.S.C. §1395dd(e)(1).
4 State of Tex. v. Becerra, et al., No. 5:22-cv-185 (N.D. Tex. Jul. 14, 2022).
5 Tex. Health & Safety Code § 170A.
6 State of Tex. v. Becerra, et al., No. 5:22-cv-185 (N.D. Tex. Jul. 14, 2022), Memorandum Opinion and Order at 49.
7 Idaho Code § 18-622.
8 Idaho Code § 18-622(3).
9 U.S. v. Idaho, No. 1:22-cv-00329-BLW.
10 U.S. v. Idaho, No. 1:22-cv-00329-BLW, Memorandum Decision and Order at 26-31.