The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights convened last week to determine if hospitals across the country are violating the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act by "dumping" mentally ill and other patients, according to an announcement from the Commission.
The law requires Medicare hospitals to treat any emergency medical condition even if patients can't pay, and makes it illegal to discharge patients with any medical condition prior to stabilizing them.
During the briefing, experts from around the country voiced concerns about how hospitals treat uninsured mentally ill patients.
"When we look at the provision of information and the failure to oversee it, the time is now," Staci Pratt, legal director for the Nevada branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, testified before the commission, according to the Las Vegas Sun. She cited a patient-dumping case in which a Las Vegas psychiatric hospital discharged a mentally ill man and put him on a bus to California, where he knew no one.
Pratt called for more federal oversight and penalties for hospitals that don't properly accommodate mentally ill patients, as well as more stringent enforcement of laws already on the books.
The government could also start random compliance audits, rather than only investigating after a hospital staff or a patient complains, said Mike Willden, director of the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, according to the article. "I think that was a fair recommendation to make."
However, government funding cuts and hospital budget constraints make it difficult to enforce the law on an everyday, practical level, Gina Greenwood, a health attorney from Georgia, told the Sun.
The Commission will investigate and report their findings to President Barack Obama.
"Healthcare is a civil right," said Commission chair Martin Castro, The Oregonian reported. "We're going to look at whether [the] Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, EMTALA, is sufficiently functioning to protect individuals that are being the victim of patient dumping."
The action comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed in Oregon against a Portland-area hospital that Barbara Alexander-Brown, the former Multnomah County compliance officer, claims dumped patients after county investigators refused to approve an involuntary mental health hold that would make the county accountable for the patient's medical bills, according to the newspaper.
Another Oregon lawsuit alleges Providence Health System charged uninsured patients more money and Legacy Health System forced uninsured patients to sign an agreement they would pay all medical bills they accrued, according to The Oregonian.
Beverly Hospital, a 224-bed facility in Montebello, Calif., paid $250,000 in civil penalties and legal fees after the city said it sent a homeless patient by taxi to Skid Row, an area of the city with one of the largest stable homeless populations in the country, without making any arrangements with a shelter, FierceHealthcare previously reported.