Author Archives: Sarah Miller

The ACA Helps Correct Incentives for Patients to Use the Health Care System Inefficiently

Aug 30, 2013, 9:00 AM, Posted by Sarah Miller

Sarah M. Miller is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Scholar in Health Policy Research (cohort 19). She has a PhD in economics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her dissertation examines the effect of the 2006 Massachusetts health care reform on emergency room (ER) use. Miller will soon become an assistant professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame. Read all the blog posts in this series.


The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) guaranteed all patients the right to receive urgent care in an emergency department regardless of their ability to pay. While the intent of the EMTALA was to ensure no patient was refused emergency care simply because they did not have health insurance, by covering only emergency department care, and not primary or preventive care, the EMTALA created incentives for patients to use the health care system inefficiently. These incentives may be especially salient for low-income or uninsured patients who have limited access to health services outside of emergency departments and community health centers.


The law established that patients could always receive care in the emergency department even if they didn’t have the cash to pay upfront, or an insurance company picking up the tab, but the mandate did not extend to private physicians’ offices. Some state laws go so far as to dictate that uninsured patients can receive free care in the ER if they have sufficiently low incomes.

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