No, You Do Not Have the Right to Free Emergency Care

Below, a guest post by Harold Pollack, who has recently joined The Century Foundation as an adjunct fellow focusing on issues of Economics and Inequaiity.  Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration, and faculty chair of the Center for Health Administration Studies at the University of Chicago .–MM

During the health reform debate, many people asserted that the uninsured are, de facto, already covered because they can always get emergency care. Here, for example, was President George W. Bush in 2008: I mean, people have access to health care in America," he said. "After all, you just go to an emergency room."

Thursday, one of Ezra Klein's commenters says something similar, though from a different locale on the ideological spectrum:

If the Republican Party is serious about decreasing government control of health care, they should start by introducing a bill that would repeal the law signed by President Ronald Reagan that mandates free health care for all who seek it. That law, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), was the largest expansion of government mandated health care since Medicare.

For obvious reasons, it would be terrible health policy to make emergency departments into our all-purpose free-care safety-net, even in a hypothetical universe where these facilities were actually capable of providing all the care that people need. But that's not what EMTALA actually does.

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