Do You Have A "Right" To Healthcare?

Stethoscope on top of 100 dollar bills

We were recently asked about a client’s “right” to health care.  “Don’t they have to take care of me” the client asked. 

Unfortunately, for most, the answer is no, they don’t.

There is one exception to the rule.  If you are suffering from an emergency medical condition, you do have a right under federal law to treatment. 

Under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, or EMTALA as it is frequently called, anyone presenting to an emergency department at a hospital that accepts Medicare, with an emergency medical condition, must be screened and treated or stabilized before they can be discharged. 

The law also requires transfer if necessary to stabilize the patient and requires hospitals to accept such transfers. Many link the genesis of the bill to the tragic case of Eugene Barnes.  In January of 1985, Barnes had been stabbed in an altercation in Richmond, California, near San Francisco.  An ambulance delivered him to a San Francisco area hospital.  An emergency room doctor called two different neurosurgeons at that hospital that refused to provide Mr. Barnes care.  The Emergency room doctor also called several other area hospitals, where other neurosurgeons also declined to accept Barnes for care. After many hours had passed, Barnes finally received a transfer, but ultimately died as a result of the delay in care.  Just over one year later, in April of 1986, President Ronald Reagan made EMTALA the law of the land.

Under EMTALA, a hospital that accepts Medicare must screen patients for an emergency medical condition.  If – and only if - an emergency medical condition exists, the hospital must stabilize the patient or transfer the patient to a facility that can stabilize the patient.  Finally, hospitals with specialist or that specialize in particular areas of medicine must accept transfers to address emergency medical conditions.

Beyond EMTALA, however, you have no “right” to receive care. 

A doctor cannot be forced to see you, evaluate you, or provide treatment to you, unless they are contractually bound to do so under an agreement with an insurance company.  As such, many Americans with chronic medical conditions, no insurance, and inadequate funds to pay for care, are left with no alternative but emergency medical care.