Your Rights in the Hospital
The law sets emergency room regulations and in-patient rights.
Federal law protects you from being turned away from a hospital emergency room, and most states have similar laws. So if you go to an emergency room, even for non-emergency treatment, you must at least be examined by a doctor on duty. You can't be refused an examination, even if you are without health insurance coverage.
However, once you've been examined in the emergency room, the hospital is not required to admit you if your condition is stable and you can be sent home or transferred elsewhere. The only time the hospital must provide treatment and keep you in the hospital is in the event of an actual emergency, or if you are a woman in active labor.
If you've ever been in an emergency room, especially in a big city hospital, you know that it's not a pretty place. Doctors and nurses spend the bulk of their time treating rape victims, shooting victims, drug addicts who have taken an overdose, and accident victims. As a result, although you cannot be turned away from an emergency room, you may spend hours waiting to see a doctor, especially if your complaint is a relatively minor one. In addition, using the emergency room as a substitute for a family physician drives up medical costs for everyone, since the bills of those who can't pay are spread out among the hospital's paying patients in the form of higher rates for everyone. Many cities and towns have low-cost family health centers which can provide at least basic services to the poor. If you can't afford insurance, contact your county health department to find out what services may be available in your area.
If you are admitted to a hospital, you have certain rights which are designed to protect your health, your dignity, and your right to choose the treatment you will receive. The American Hospital Association has established the "Patient's Bill of Rights," which a number of states have enacted into law, and which describes your rights as a hospital patient.
Among other rights, hospital patients have a right to receive considerate and respectful care. You don't have to tolerate hospital staff who call you names like "Sweetie," "Honey" or "Gramps." You are entitled to complete, understandable information about your condition, the treatment prescribed, and your prognosis. You are entitled to sufficient information from your doctor to allow you to give informed consent to any treatment, as well as an explanation of the consequences you may suffer by refusing such treatment. The Patients' Bill of Rights also guarantees confidential treatment of your hospital records and privacy in the administration of your medical care.
Finally, the Patients' Bill of Rights gives you the right to receive a fully itemized bill from the hospital, as well as an explanation of the charges. Do not be afraid to exercise this very important right. One study of hospital bills found that more than 95 percent of them contained errors, the vast majority of which favored the hospital, not the patient. And another study put the average overcharge in hospital bills at more than $1,200.
You are not required to pay a hospital bill at the time you are discharged, and you should take a few days to review the bill before you make payment. The hospital should give you the opportunity to speak with a representative who can explain the charges and how they are calculated. If you are billed for care, medication, or equipment which you did not receive, you have no obligation to pay for them.
In most cases, the hospital's representative may have the power to delete these charges after investigating them. But if he can't, or won't, and you still believe the charges are mistaken, be sure to notify your health insurance company's claims department of your concerns as soon as possible. If you don't have insurance, or even if you do, you can also contact your county health department or medical board and ask it to investigate. It may be able to have the charges removed or reduced. But if you are still unhappy with the bill, you can either refuse to pay the disputed portion and wait for the hospital to try to collect it, or you can get an attorney to assist you in fighting the charges.
If you refuse to pay the amount in dispute, be sure to notify the hospital in writing of the reason for your refusal. It may report you to a credit bureau as delinquent, but it will have to note that your refusal to pay is because you dispute the amount in question.
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