Biden administration launches reporting tool for health law at center of abortion dispute

Hospital Emergency Room The Biden administration holds that the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) can be used to require emergency room doctors to perform abortions. | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Biden administration this week launched an online tool designed to allow patients to report violations of a federal health law, one that the White House says requires emergency room doctors to perform abortions in some cases. 

At the center of the dispute is the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). That law, which was passed in 1986, dictates to Medicare-participating hospitals that “all patients receive an appropriate medical screening examination, stabilizing treatment, and transfer, if necessary,” regardless of ability to pay.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra said in July 2022, shortly after the Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade, that under EMTALA an emergency room doctor “must provide” abortions to pregnant women if it is determined that abortion constitutes a “stabilizing treatment” under the federal law. 

A federal appeals court in January rejected the Biden administration’s argument that the law can be used to require emergency room doctors to perform abortions. The Biden administration has appealed the January ruling at the Supreme Court. 

The U.S. Supreme Court in April, meanwhile, heard arguments in a dispute in which the federal government also challenged an Idaho pro-life law on EMTALA grounds. 

On Tuesday, meanwhile, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced an online tool “to allow individuals to more easily file an Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act complaint.”

Though the announcement does not mention abortion, the release said the tool is “part of the Biden-Harris administration’s comprehensive plan to educate the public and promote patient access to the emergency medical care to which they are entitled under federal law.”

“If an individual believes their EMTALA rights have been violated, it is important that they can easily file a complaint,” CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said in the announcement. 

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, specifically praised the tool as “incredibly important” for women in the post-Roe v. Wade United States.

“The Biden administration has fought at every turn to ensure women receive emergency health care in all circumstances, but make no mistake, these protections and so many others could very well disappear under a second Trump administration,” Murray said. 

She argued that “Donald Trump and his allies will try to ban abortion care any way they can, putting millions of women’s lives at risk.”

Katie Glenn Daniel, the state policy director at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told CNA that the new online tool “seems like a tool that should be used for good” because it makes it easier for people who are wronged “to file a complaint.”

EMTALA, Daniel noted, is a law “requiring that if you show up to a hospital with a medical emergency, that they can’t turn you away due to [an inability] to pay.” If a woman is pregnant, she added, “that protection extends to her and her unborn child.”

Although Daniel said EMTALA is “a life-affirming law,” she added that people need to view this announcement with skepticism, based on the Biden administration’s efforts to expand abortion through the president’s interpretation of the law.

“It’s so clear that they see EMTALA as a tool to try to back end abortion in pro-life states,” Daniel said. “It’s something we have to look at with a critical eye.”

If the Supreme Court were to rule in the administration’s favor, Daniel warned, “it basically opens the door to [Biden] rewriting all kinds of laws.”

The Supreme Court has not yet issued a ruling in the Idaho dispute. Last month, Joshua Turner, a lawyer representing Idaho before the high court, said the state law permits an abortion when the life of the mother is threatened, which is based on “the doctor’s good-faith medical judgment.”

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In contrast, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, who provided the legal arguments on behalf of the DOJ, said Idaho’s law conflicts with the text of EMTALA.

In view of the case, the Catholic Health Association has expressed its concern that “the highly polarized and politicized nature of abortion conflates necessary medical interventions with elective procedures.” 

The association went on to note that “Catholic hospitals do not offer elective abortions. However, in tragic situations when a mother suffers from an urgent, life-threatening condition during pregnancy, Catholic health clinicians do provide medically indicated treatment, even if it poses a threat to the unborn or may result in the unintended death of the child.”

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