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Two hospitals under federal investigation over care of pregnant woman who was refused abortion

<i>Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA</i><br/>HHS has reaffirmed that the law known as EMTALA requires providers to offer stabilizing care in emergency cases
Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA
Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA
HHS has reaffirmed that the law known as EMTALA requires providers to offer stabilizing care in emergency cases

By Katherine Dillinger and Nadia Kounang, CNN

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is investigating two hospitals that “did not offer necessary stabilizing care to an individual experiencing an emergency medical condition, in violation of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA),” according to a letter from US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.

Under EMTALA, health care professionals are required to “offer treatment, including abortion care, that the provider reasonably determines is necessary to stabilize the patient’s emergency medical condition,” Becerra said Monday in his letter to national hospital and provider associations.

The National Women’s Law Center, which said in a statement that it filed the initial EMTALA complaint on behalf of Mylissa Farmer, identified the hospitals as Freeman Hospital West of Joplin, Missouri, and the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kansas.

The patient was nearly 18 weeks pregnant when she had a preterm premature rupture of membranes, Becerra wrote, but she was told that her pregnancy wasn’t viable.

“Although her doctors advised her that her condition could rapidly deteriorate, they also advised that they could not provide her with the care that would prevent infection, hemorrhage, and potentially death because, they said, the hospital policies prohibited treatment that could be considered an abortion,” Becerra wrote.

Becerra added in a statement Monday, “fortunately, this patient survived. But she never should have gone through the terrifying ordeal she experienced in the first place. We want her, and every patient out there like her, to know that we will do everything we can to protect their lives and health, and to investigate and enforce the law to the fullest extent of our legal authority.”

Abortion is banned in Missouri, with limited exceptions, such as to save the mother’s life. State law requires counseling and a 72-hour waiting period. In Kansas, abortion is generally banned at or after 22 weeks of pregnancy, with a 24-hour waiting period and counseling required.

Passed in 1986, EMTALA requires that hospitals provide stabilizing treatment to patients who have emergency medical conditions, or transfer them to facilities where such care will be provided, regardless of any conflicting state laws or mandates.

Changes to state laws in the wake of the US Supreme Court decision that overturned the right to an abortion have left many hospitals and providers uncertain or confused about the steps they can legally take in such cases. HHS issued guidance last year reaffirming that EMTALA requires providers to offer stabilizing care in emergency cases, which might include abortion.

Hospitals found to be in violation of EMTALA could lose their Medicare and Medicaid provider agreements and could face civil penalties. An individual physician could also face civil penalties if they are found to be in violation.

HHS may impose a $119,942 fine per violation for hospitals with more than 100 beds and $59,973 for hospitals with fewer than 100 beds. A physician could face a $119,942 fine per violation.

The National Women’s Law Center says the new actions are the first time since Roe v. Wade was overturned that EMTALA has been enforced against a hospital that denied emergency abortion care.

“The care provided to the patient was reviewed by the hospital and found to be in accordance with hospital policy,” the University of Kansas Health System said in a statement to CNN. “It met the standard of care based upon the facts known at the time, and complied with all applicable law. There is a process with CMS for this complaint and we respect that process. The University of Kansas Health System follows federal and Kansas law in providing appropriate, stabilizing, and quality care to all of its patients, including obstetric patients.”

Freeman Hospital did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

An HHS spokesperson told CNN that both hospitals are working toward coming into compliance with the law.

In the law center’s statement, Farmer said she was pleased with the investigations, “but pregnant people across the country continue to be denied care and face increased risk of complications or death, and it must stop. I was already dealing with unimaginable loss and the hospitals made things so much harder. I’m still struggling emotionally with what happened to me, but I am determined to keep fighting because no one should have to go through this.”

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