Code Red: The Essential Yet Neglected Role of Emergency Care in Health Law Reform

Document Type


Publication Date



The United States' health care system is mired in uncertainty. Public opinion on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) is undeniably mixed and politicized. The individual mandate, tax subsidies, and Medicaid expansion dominate the discussion. This Article argues that the ACA and reform discourse have given short shrift to a more static problem: the law of emergency care. The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act of 1986 (“EMTALA”) requires most hospitals to screen patients for emergency medical conditions and provide stabilizing treatment regardless of patients' insurance status or ability to pay. Remarkably, this law strengthened the health safety net in a country that has no universal health care. But it is an unfunded mandate that responded to the problem of emergency care in a flawed fashion and contributed to the supposed “free rider” problem that the ACA attempted to cure. But the ACA has also not been effective at addressing the issue of emergency care. The ACA's architects reduced funding for hospitals that serve a disproportionate percentage of the medically indigent but did not anticipate the Supreme Court's ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius, which made Medicaid expansion optional. Public and non-profit hospitals now face a scenario of less funding and potentially higher emergency room utilization due to continued uninsurance or underinsurance. Alternatives to the ACA have been insufficiently attentive to the importance of emergency care in our health system. This Article contends that any proposal that does not seriously consider EMTALA is incomplete and bound to produce some of the same problems that have dogged the American health care system for the past few decades. Moreover, the Article shows how notions of race, citizenship, and deservingness have filtered into this health care trajectory, and in the context of reform, have the potential to exacerbate existing health inequality. The paper concludes with normative suggestions on how to the mitigate EMTALA's problems in ways that might improve population health.

Publication Title

American Journal of Law & Medicine