The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act as a Federal Health Care Safety Net Program

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Despite the greatest economic expansion in history during the 1990s, the number of uninsured U.S. residents surpassed 44 million in 1998. Although this number declined for the first time in recent years in 1999, to 42.6 million, the current economic slow-down threatens once again to increase the ranks of the uninsured. Many uninsured patients use hospital emergency departments as a vital portal of entry into an access-improverished health care system. In 1986, Congress mandated access to emergency care when it passed the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA). The EMTALA statute has prevented the unethical denial of emergency care based on inability to pay; however, the financial implications of EMTALA have not yet been adequately appreciated or addressed by Congress or the American public. Cuts in payments from public and private payers, as well as increasing demands from a larger uninsured population, have placed unprecedented financial strains on safety net providers. This paper reviews the financial implications of EMTALA, illustrating how the statute has evolved into a federal health care safety net program. Future actions are proposed, including the pressing need for greater public safety net funding and additional actions to preserve health care access for vulnerable populations.