Earth & Conservation

Can Doctors Legally Refuse To Treat Patients?

In the U.S., many hospitals have religious policies and can turn patients away from care. So is this legal?

It's a common misconception in the U.S. that doctors are legally required to treat patients regardless of ability to pay -- or any other reason. That's not quite the case. Jules Suzdaltsev explains in today's Seeker Daily report.

In fact, as with everything else in the U.S. health care system, multiple variables are involved. Whether a doctor is legally obliged to treat you depends on location, type of facility, type of doctor, and the nature of the treatment.

First of all, doctors in private practice -- who do not receive public funding via programs like Medicare -- can deny pretty much anyone for pretty much any reason. They can choose to refuse customers like any other merchant or service provider, although they are still subject to federal anti-discrimination laws.

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Doctors who receive public funding are subject to different rules in different states. Many states, for instance, allow doctors to refuse treatment to a patient exhibiting threatening or dangerous behavior. Some grant doctors the right to refuse treatment on moral grounds. In April 2016, Mississippi passed a law that would have allowed doctors to refuse any medical case that would contradict their religious beliefs -- notably gender reassignment surgery. The case was later blocked by a federal judge.

Speaking of the feds, that's where things get even more confusing. Both patients and medical providers are governed by broad federal protections, which sometimes contradict state and local laws. For instance, federal policy prohibits hospitals from denying treatment to anyone who is facing a life threatening emergency, or on the basis of a person's race, faith, age or sexual orientation.

But some church-affiliated hospitals use their code of ethics to justify refusing a treatment that challenges their religious beliefs -- even in the case of emergency treatment. In fact, a recent case in Chicago made headlines when a Catholic hospital refused to remove a woman's IUD contraceptive device.

The bottom line: The U.S. health care system is terminally confusing. But we already knew that.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

The New York Times: When Doctor's Slam the Door

The Atlantic: Why Mississippi's Law on Religious Rights and LGBT Discrimination Got Blocked

The Huffington Post: Lawsuits Target Catholic Hospitals for Refusing to Provide Emergency Miscarriage Management