Category: EMTALA

Requesting EMTALA waivers during a natural disaster

By Seth Carver, Class of 2020; Andrew F. Solinger, Associate at Waller

With the start of hurricane season, and the recent destruction caused by Hurricane Florence on the Carolinas and beyond, hospitals must review and update their policies and procedures to ensure that proper care can be provided to patients following surges caused by natural disasters and emergencies.

Following large natural disasters such as Hurricane Florence, and other mass casualty events such as terrorist attacks or public health emergencies, hospitals are likely to experience significant surges of patients that will test and push the limits of hospitals’ capacities.  In the face of these mass casualty events, hospitals must quickly and effectively choose which patients will be treated and which will not.

This decision is likely to cause friction with a hospital’s obligations under The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (“EMTALA”), which requires hospitals to properly screen and stabilize all patients that present to an emergency department for care.  Because of this tension between a hospital’s ethical and legal obligations to treat patients and the realities of responding to natural disasters and other mass casualty events, hospitals must understand the requisite responsibilities under EMTALA during such disasters as well as ways in which they can protect themselves from liability for potential, but unavoidable, violations of EMTALA.

EMTALA prohibits all Medicare-participating hospitals from denying emergency medical service to individuals, regardless of ability to pay.  It also requires hospitals to provide an appropriate medical screening to determine if a medical condition exists.  If such a condition exists, the hospital is required to provide stabilizing treatment before transferring or discharging the patient.

Natural disasters do not by themselves absolve hospitals of this requirement under EMTALA.  However, it is foreseeable that hospitals in the path of a natural disaster will need to transfer patients to other facilities without conducting medical screening exams or stabilizing treatment.  An option which has been used in the past to transfer these patients without violating the requirements under EMTALA is a Section 1135 waiver. These waivers are short-term releases from the normal EMTALA requirements in the wake of declared natural disasters.  HHS has issued these waivers in previous natural disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Dean, the Iowa floods of 2008, and the Minnesota floods of 2009.

When utilizing Section 1135 waivers, in order to lawfully transfer patients without conducting such medical screening exams, or if needed stabilizing treatments, all of the following conditions must apply:

  • The President declares an emergency or disaster under the Stafford Act or the National Emergencies Act;
  • The Secretary of HHS declares that a public health emergency (PHE) exists;
  • The Secretary of HHS authorizes EMTALA waivers under Section 1135 of the Social Security Act;
  • Unless EMTALA waivers are granted for an entire geographic area, the hospital in question applies for a waiver from HHS;
  • The hospital has actually activated its emergency operations plan; and
  • The state has activated its emergency operations plan or pandemic plan for the area that covers the hospital.

Once the Secretary of HHS authorizes § 1135 waivers a hospital may submit a request to operate under that authority by sending an email to the CMS regional office in their service area.

The request should contain the following:[i]

  • Provider Name/Type;
  • Full Address (including county/city/town/state) CCN (Medicare provider number);
  • Contact person and his or her contact information for follow-up questions;
  • A brief summary of why the waiver is needed.  For example: “Critical Access Hospital (CAH) is the sole community provider without reasonable transfer options at this point during the specified emergent event (e.g. flooding, tornado, fires, or flu outbreak)” or “CAH needs a waiver to exceed its bed limit by X number of beds for Y days/weeks” (be specific);
  • Consideration – Type of relief you are seeking or regulatory requirements or regulatory reference that the requestor is seeking to be waived;
  • There is no specific form or format that is required to submit the information but it is helpful to clearly state the scope of the issue and the impact;
  • If a waiver is requested, the information should come directly from the impacted provider to the appropriate Regional Office mailbox with a copy to the appropriate State Agency for Health Care Administration to make sure the waiver request does not conflict with any State requirements and all concerns are addressed timely.

The waiver request is then reviewed by a cross-regional waiver validation team.  In reviewing waiver requests CMS makes the following inquiries: [ii]

  • Is the hospital within the defined emergency area?
  • Is there an actual need?
  • What is the expected duration?
  • Can this be resolved within current regulations?
  • Will regulatory relief requested actually address stated need?
  • Should we consider an individual or blanket waiver?

If granted, Section 1135 waivers generally last for up to 72 hours after both the emergency is declared and the hospital’s emergency plan is activated.  In some instances, the waiver will terminate prior to 72 hours if the HHS Secretary determines that the waiver is no longer necessary. It is important to note that this waiver does not allow for hospitals to selectively only treat patients with insurance and to transfer away all uninsured or underinsured patients.  If utilizing the waiver to transfer such patients, hospitals must not discriminate on

In order for hospitals to remain compliant with all EMTLA regulations during natural disasters and emergencies, it is important to review and revise EMTLA policies so that they reflect the proper steps in utilizing Section 1135 waivers.  Natural disasters and other mass casualty events impose large challenges for hospitals regarding treatment requirements. However, with active preparation and well-written emergency policies hospitals can limit violations of government regulations and ease the decision making of hospital personnel.