ATLANTA (FOX 5 Atlanta) - If you end up in an emergency department, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act or (EMTALA) gives you the right to be screened and stabilized, even if you don't have health insurance or cannot pay.
But, Georgia Health News' CEO and Editor Andy Miller and WebMD teamed up for an 8-month long investigation and found hundreds of hospitals violate the 32-year old law each year.
"We found it in hospital of all sizes," Andy Miller says. "But, particularly, the smaller hospitals, had a higher percentage (of violations.) We also found a higher percentage in the Southeast, versus other areas of the country."
Miller says the most common EMTALA violations involved failures to medically screen and appropriately transfer patients.
One in 7 violations involved a patient having a psychiatric emergency.
One in 12, involved a woman who was pregnant or in labor.
"We saw examples of them being told, 'Look, we don't do baby deliveries; go somewhere else," Miller says. "The problem is every hospital emergency room has to have the capability of delivering a baby. That's a medical emergency."
The report found Georgia had the sixth highest rate of EMTALA violations.
Smaller hospitals were more likely to have violations, largely, Miller says, because of a lack of resources.
"What that might mean is, they may not have adequate nursing staff, or they may not have a physician’ to come in on call," he says.
"And in many cases, patients had to wait hours to get screened for a medical condition they have."
The Georgia Hospital Association declined an on-camera interview, but released a statement to FOX 5.
"Georgia hospitals examine all patients who come to their emergency departments, regardless of citizenship, legal status or ability to pay," the GHA wrote.
In a medical emergency, the GHA says, the hospital will do everything it can to stabilize the patient.
"If the hospital does not have the capability or capacity to stabilize the patient, arrangements are made for the patient’s safe transfer to a facility that does," the statement continues.
So what are you rights in the ER?
"You have a right to be screened, medically-screened, to determine what your condition is," Miller says.
Once you are stabilized, if the hospital is unable to treat you, Miller says, it needs to provide a timely transfer to a facility that can treat you.
It's the law.
For information on how to file an EMTALA complaint, go to https://www.medicare.gov/claims-appeals/how-to-file-a-complaint-grievance.