Police chiefs throughout the United States are frequently confronted with situations where department overtime budgets are strained; physical effort levels are drained; and officers are frustrated by long, drawn-out attempts to access necessary medical care for victims, prisoners, suspects, and psychiatric patients in their local emergency departments. Many of these issues can be resolved proactively if the police administration makes effective use of federal hospital regulations to obtain cooperation from local hospital emergency departments.
While police chiefs are responsible for enforcing the criminal laws and complying with myriad regulations affecting departmental procedures, they are likely unaware of the equally large volume of regulations pertaining to hospitals and the enforcement process that can fine, or even close, hospitals in literally days. Among the most feared of these laws is the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). This law was passed in 1986 to restrict hospital “dumping,” or refusal of care because of financial issues. In the following years, the law and its regulations have developed into a complex set of rules that essentially guarantee timely access to emergency health care at hospitals to any and all patients. Properly applied, these rules can help generate hospital cooperation with police to expedite the process to care for patients and prisoners, return officers to the street sooner, cut resulting police expense, and promote effectiveness. Approached incorrectly, however, it can aggravate existing issues and result in a poor community image and potential liability concerns for both the police department and the hospitals involved.