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Maine hospitals violated federal law by turning away patients with mental health distress

Under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, hospitals participating in Medicare are required to screen and stabilize ER patients.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Central Maine Medical Center. Credit: Google Street ViewCentral Maine Medical Center. Credit: Google Street View

Two Maine hospitals violated federal law by turning away emergency room patients suffering from mental health crises, in some cases having them arrested, according to a report published in the Portland Press Herald.

Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary's Regional Medical Center, both in Lewiston, have admitted to the practice and have pledged a course of corrective action to avoid so-called "patient dumping," which is federally illegal.

Under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, hospitals participating in Medicare are required to screen and stabilize emergency room patients. Violating the law put both hospitals at risk of losing Medicare payments, a major revenue source.

In the cases in which patients were arrested, they were often brought to Androscoggin County Jail, at which point their conditions worsened, according to the Bangor Daily News. Many of these patients, a great deal of whom had a long history of mental illness, had entered the ER threatening to commit suicide.

Some arrested patients had their hospital records deleted after being transported away from the ER.

CMMC actively told local law enforcement officials and ambulance service not to take mental health patients to the hospital, citing its lack of appropriate services and resources.

Links to the plans of correction for both hospitals can be found on the Disability Rights Maine website. CMMC said it would better educate its employees on the law, and create an evaluation process for disruptive patients, as well as prevent patient records from being altered or deleted. Both hospitals have pledged to increase the visibility of signage explaining patients' rights.

The plans of correction will allow both hospitals to continue to receive Medicare payments. Together, the hospitals account for the only two emergency rooms in Lewiston.

Other hospital emergency rooms have also struggled to help patients in need of mental health treatment. 

Hospitals often don't have the professional expertise to treat patients needing psychiatric care, and in some cases, patients were kept waiting two to five days in the ER for an inpatient bed, according to 2016 study.

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com