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HHS investigates 2 hospitals for not providing emergency abortion care, and sends a message


Secretary Xavier Becerra says a patient in distress endured a ‘terrifying ordeal’ when the facilities refused to perform the procedure. He warned the agency will go after hospitals that violate federal law.

The federal government is serving notice when it comes to providing emergency care, including abortions, to patients in life-threatening situations.

U.S. Health & Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra (Photo: U.S. Health & Human Services Department)

U.S. Health & Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra (Photo: U.S. Health & Human Services Department)

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said this week that it is investigating two hospitals for failing to provide emergency care to a pregnant woman.

In a statement, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said both hospitals “did not offer necessary stabilizing care to an individual experiencing an emergency medical condition.”

Even though the patient was advised the pregnancy was no longer viable, Becerra said, the physicians told the patient “they could not provide her with the care that would prevent infection, hemorrhage, and potentially death because, they said, the hospital policies prohibited treatment that could be considered an abortion.”

The investigations arise from last year’s Supreme Court decision overturning abortion rights, leading to some states prohibiting abortion or vastly restricting it except for limited circumstances.

The patient survived, but Becerra said “she never should have gone through the terrifying ordeal she experienced in the first place.”

“We want her, and every patient out there like her, to know that we will do everything we can to protect their lives and health, and to investigate and enforce the law to the fullest extent of our legal authority, in accordance with orders from the courts,” Becerra said.

The secretary sent a letter to hospitals and providers associations around the nation explaining the actions, and his willingness to investigate other hospitals for violating federal law regarding emergency abortion care.

The health department didn’t name the two hospitals, but the Associated Press and other media reports say the investigations involve the Freeman Hospital West in Joplin, Missouri, and University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kansas.

‘Hospitals should take heed’

The National Women’s Law Center filed a complaint with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services against Freeman Hospital West and the University of Kansas Health System on behalf of a patient, Mylissa Farmer.

The law center said both hospitals refused to provide emergency abortion care to Farmer even as she was experiencing life-threatening complications about 18 weeks into her pregnancy.

Michelle Banker, director of reproductive rights and health litigation at the National Women’s Law Center, is one of the lead attorneys representing Farmer. She said the HHS investigation is an important step to getting justice for Farmer and makes clear that what happened to her is illegal, regardless of state laws.

“Other hospitals should take heed—there are consequences for denying people emergency abortion care,” Banker said in a statement.

Farmer experienced preterm premature rupture of membranes, the law center said. Farmer eventually traveled to an abortion clinic in Illinois, the AP reported.

In an interview with the AP, Farmer said, “It was dehumanizing. It was terrifying. It was horrible not to get the care to save your life. I felt like I was responsible to do something, to say something, to not have this happen again to another woman. It was bad enough to be so powerless.”

Bans in 14 states

Most abortions are now banned in 14 states, including Missouri, according to The New York Times. In Kansas, state law generally prohibits abortion at 22 weeks and patients must undergo a 24-hour waiting period, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

In a statement sent to Chief Healthcare Executive®, the University of Kansas Health System said, “The care provided to the patient was reviewed by the hospital and found to be in accordance with hospital policy. It met the standard of care based upon the facts known at the time, and complied with all applicable law.

“There is a process with CMS for this complaint and we respect that process. The University of Kansas Health System follows federal and Kansas law in providing appropriate, stabilizing, and quality care to all of its patients, including obstetric patients.”

A request for comment from Freeman Health System in Missouri was not immediately returned Thursday.

Becerra said the hospitals’ actions violated the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act. Last July, Becerra sent letters to healthcare providers outlining that federal law compels providers to offer emergency abortion care.

“During her visits to two different hospitals, the patient was not offered the care that her doctors determined was necessary to stabilize those emergency medical conditions -- not because of the clinical judgment of her providers, but because the hospital policies would not allow an abortion to be performed,” Becerra said in his statement this week.

The HHS secretary has said federal law supersedes state laws when it comes to providing emergency care, including abortions. However, legal battles have been taking place in some states over when providers can intercede.

Doctors, pharmacists and some advocacy groups say state laws are too vague on when providers can take action and in patient care more generally. They say some state laws restricting abortion are impeding the care of patients, including those who aren’t trying to end pregnancies.

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