The Right to Treatment


If individuals do not carry health insurance, they are still entitled to hospital emergency care, including labor and delivery care, regardless of their ability to pay. The federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), 42 U.S.C. ยง 1395, which is a separate section of the more comprehensive 1985 Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act (COBRA), mandates minimum standards for emergency care by hospital emergency rooms. The law requires that all patients who present with an emergency medical condition must receive treatment to the extent that their emergency condition is medically “stabilized,” irrespective of their ability to pay for such treatment.

An emergency medical condition is defined under federal law as one that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity (including severe pain, psychiatric disturbance, and/or symptoms of substance abuse) such that the absence of immediate medical attention could reasonably be expected to result in the following:

  • placing the health of the individual (or unborn child) in serious jeopardy
  • the serious impairment of a bodily function
  • the serious dysfunction of any bodily function or part
  • the inadequate time to effect a safe transfer of a pregnant woman to another hospital before delivery, or, that the transfer may pose a threat to the health or safety of the woman or unborn child

The law goes on to define “stabilization” as meaning “that no material deterioration of the condition is likely within reasonable medical probability to result from or occur during the transfer of the patient from a facility” (or discharge).

However, once the emergency is over and a patient’s condition is stabilized, the patient can be discharged and refused further treatment by private hospitals and most public hospitals. If the individual seeks routine medical care or schedule a doctor’s appointment for non-emergency medical problems, doctors have a general right to refuse treatment if they have no insurance or any other means of paying for the provided care.

There are numerous protections for HIV-positive and AIDS patients that prohibit hospitals and facilities from refusing treatment if the facility’s staff has the appropriate training and resources. However, most private physicians and dentists are under ethical but not legal obligations to provide treatment.

Individuals also have a legal right to not be released prematurely from a hospital. If they are advised to vacate their hospital room because of a standardized “appropriate length of stay” generally approved for their specific condition, they have the right to appeal that discharge if they believe that they are not well enough to leave. They should consult both their doctors and a hospital patient representative for procedural information regarding an appeal. However, the policy generally works in a way that makes them liable for payment of excess hospital stays if they should lose the appeal.

Individuals have the right to refuse treatment and leave a hospital at any time, assuming that they are mentally competent. The hospital may ask them to sign a document releasing it from liability if their medical condition worsens as a result of their refusal to accept the recommended treatment.

If individuals lose mental competency and appear to be a danger to themselves or others, they may be taken to a hospital against their will and held for involuntary “commitment.” Most states require an immediate written statement or affidavit affirming the reasons for their involuntary commitment. However, within a short period of time (e.g., 72 hours), most states require a full examination by a medical and psychiatric doctor, a diagnosis, and (within a certain number of days) a hearing at which they will have the right to be represented by counsel. The purpose of the hearing is to establish whether there is sufficient information to justify their continued commitment or whether they should be released. Also, their attorneys will advise them as to whether there had been sufficient cause to justify holding them against their will in the first place.