Monthly Archives: August 2017
“Ought Implies Can” – Court Reverses Decision Forcing HHS to Eliminate Medicare Appeal Backlog
But all is not lost… it all lies in the possibility…
A few weeks ago I blogged about Health and Human Services (HHS) possibly being held in contempt of court for violating an Order handed down on Dec. 5, 2016, by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg. See blog.
The District Court Judge granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the American Hospital Association in AHA v. Burwell. He ordered HHS to incrementally reduce the backlog of 657,955 appeals pending before the agency’s Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals over the next four years, reducing the backlog by 30% by the end of 2017; 60% by the end of 2018; 90% by the end of 2019; and to completely eliminate the backlog by Dec. 31, 2020.
This was a huge win for AHA – and Medicare providers across the country. Currently, when a provider appeals an adverse decision regarding Medicare, it costs an inordinate amount of attorneys’ fees, and the provider will not receive legal relief for upwards of 6 – 10 years, which can cause financial hardship, especially if the adverse action is in place during the appeal process. Yet the administrative appeal process was designed (poorly) to conclude within 1 year.
With the first deadline (the end of 2017) fast approaching and HHS publicly announcing that the reduction of 30% by the end of 2017 is impossible, questions were posed – how could the District Court hold HHS, a federal agency, in contempt?
We got the answer.
On August 11, 2017, the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia overturned the District Court; thereby lifting the requirement to reduce the Medicare appeal backlog.
Wiping tear from face.
The first paragraph of the Ruling, indicates the Court’s philosophic reasoning, starting with a quote from Immanuel Kant (not to be confused with Knicole Emanuel), CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON 548 (Norman Kemp Smith trans., Macmillan 1953) (1781) (“The action to which the ‘ought’ applies must indeed be possible under natural conditions.”)
First paragraph of the decision:
“”Ought implies can.” That is, in order for law – man-made or otherwise – to command the performance of an act, that act must be possible to perform. This lofty philosophical maxim, ordinarily relevant only to bright-eyed college freshmen, sums up our reasoning in this case.”
The Appeals Court determined that the District Court commanded the Secretary to perform an act – clear the backlog by certain deadlines – without evaluating whether performance was possible.
The Medicare backlog skyrocketed in 2011 due to the federally-required Medicare Recovery Audit Program (RAC). With the implementation of the RAC program, the number of appeals filed ballooned from 59,600 in fiscal year 2011 to more than 384,000 in fiscal year 2013. These appeals bottlenecked to the third level of appeal, which is before an administrative law judge (ALJ). As of June 2, 2017, there was a backlog of 607,402 appeals awaiting review at this level. On its current course, the backlog is projected to grow to 950,520 by the end of fiscal year 2021.
There is a way for a provider to “skip” the ALJ level and “escalate” the claim, but it comes at a cost. Several procedural rights must be forfeited.
It is important to note that the appellate decision does not state that the District Court does not have the authority to Order HHS to eliminate the appeals backlog.
It only holds that, because HHS claims that compliance is impossible, the District Court must rule on whether compliance is possible before mandating the compliance. In other words, the Appeals Court wants the lower court to make a fact-finding decision as to whether HHS is able to eliminate the backlog before ordering it to do so. The Appeals Court is instructing the lower court to put the horse in front of the cart.
The Appeals Court explicitly states that it is suspect that the Secretary of HHS has done all things possible to decrease the backlog. (“We also share the District Court’s skepticism of the Secretary’s assertion that he has done all he can to reduce RAC-related appeals.”) So do not take the Appeals Court’s reversal as a sign that HHS will win the war.
I only hope that AHA presents every possible legal argument once the case is remanded to District Court. It is imperative that AHA’s attorneys think of every possible legal misstep in this remand in order to win. Not winning could potentially create bad law, basically, asserting that the Secretary has no duty to fix this appeals backlog. Obviously, the Secretary is exactly the person who should fix the backlog in his own agency. To hold otherwise, would thwart the very reason we have a Secretary of HHS. Through its rhetoric, the Appeals Court made it clear that it, too, has severe reservations about HHS’ claim of impossibility. However, without question, AHA’s suggestion to the District Court that a timeframe be implemented to reduce the backlog is not the answer. AHA needs to brainstorm and come up with several detailed proposals. For example, does the court need to include a requirement that the Secretary devote funds to hire additional ALJs? Or mandate that the ALJs work a half day on Saturday? Or order that the appeal process be revised to make the process more efficient? Clearly, the mere demand that HHS eliminate the backlog within a certain timeframe was too vague.
From here, the case will be remanded back to the District Court with instructions to the Judge to determine whether the elimination of the Medicare appeal backlog is possible. So, for now, HHS is safe from being held in contempt. But the Secretary should take heed from the original ruling and begin taking steps in fixing this mess. It is highly likely that HHS will be facing similar deadlines again – once the District Court determines it is possible.
Medicare Appeals Backlog: Is HHS In Danger of Being Held in Contempt?
Four months after the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Final Rule went in effect (March 2017) attempting to eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog and 6 months before United States District Court for the District of Columbia’s first court-imposed deadline (end of 2017) of reducing the Medicare appeal backlog by 30%, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are woefully far from either. According to HHS’ June 2017 report on the Medicare appeal backlog, 950,520 claims will remain in the backlog by 2021. This is in stark contrast to the District Court’s Order that HHS completely eliminate the backlog by 2020. So will HHS be held in contempt? Throw the Secretary in jail? That is what normally happened when someone violates a Court Order.
Supposedly, HHS’ catastrophic inability to decrease the Medicare appeal backlog is not from a lack of giving the ole college try. But, in its June 2017 report, HHS blames funding.
CMS issued a new Final Rule in January 2017, which took effect March 2017, in hopes of reducing the massive Medicare provider appeal backlog that has clogged up the third level of appeal of Medicare providers’ adverse actions. In the third level of appeal, providers make their arguments before an administrative law judge (ALJ). For information on all the Medicare appeal levels, click here.
The Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) claims that it currently can adjudicate roughly 92,000 appeals annually. The current backlog is approximately 667,326 appeals that HHS estimates will grow to 950,520 by 2021. The average number of days between filing a Petition with OMHA and adjudicating the case is around 1057.2 days.
HHS had high hopes that these changes would eliminate the backlog. In HHS’ Final Rule Fact Sheet, it states “with the administrative authorities set forth in the final rule and the FY 2017 proposed funding increases and legislative actions outlined in the President’s Budget, we estimate that that the backlog of appeals could be eliminated by FY 2020.” The changes made to the Medicare appeals process by the January 2017 Final Rule is the following:
Changes to the Medicare Appeals Process
The changes in the final rule are primarily focused on the third level of appeal and will:
- Designate Medicare Appeals Council decisions (final decisions of the Secretary) as precedential to provide more consistency in decisions at all levels of appeal, reducing the resources required to render decisions, and possibly reducing appeal rates by providing clarity to appellants and adjudicators.
- Allow attorney adjudicators to decide appeals for which a decision can be issued without a hearing and dismiss requests for hearing when an appellant withdraws the request. That way ALJs can focus on conducting hearings and adjudicating the merits of more complex cases.
- Simplify proceedings when CMS or CMS contractors are involved by limiting the number of entities (CMS or contractors) that can be a participant or party at the hearing.
- Clarify areas of the regulations that currently causes confusion and may result in unnecessary appeals to the Medicare Appeals Council.
- Create process efficiencies by eliminating unnecessary steps (e.g., by allowing ALJs to vacate their own dismissals rather than requiring appellants to appeal a dismissal to the Medicare Appeals Council); streamlining certain procedures (e.g., by using telephone hearings for appellants who are not unrepresented beneficiaries, unless the ALJ finds good cause for an appearance by other means); and requiring appellants to provide more information on what they are appealing and who will be attending a hearing.
- Address areas for improvement previously identified by stakeholders to increase the quality of the process and responsiveness to customers, such as establishing an adjudication time frame for cases remanded from the Medicare Appeals Council, revising remand rules to help ensure cases keep moving forward in the process, simplifying the escalation process, and providing more specific rules on what constitutes good cause for new evidence to be admitted at the OMHA level of appeal.
In early June 2017, HHS issued its second status report on the Medicare appeals backlog and the outlook does not look good.
CMS held a call on June 29, 2017, to discuss recent regulatory changes intended to streamline the Medicare administrative appeal processes, reduce the backlog of pending appeals, and increase consistency in decision-making across appeal levels.
Now HHS is in danger of violating a Court Order.
In December 2016, the District Court for the District of Columbia held in American Hospital Association v Burwell case Ordered HHS to release to status reports every 90 days and the complete elimination of the backlog by 2020, HHS is also required to observe several intermediary benchmarks: 30% reduction by the end of 2017, 60% by the end of 2018, 90% by the end of 2019, and then ultimately 100% elimination by the end of 2020.
BUT LITTLE TO NOTHING HAS CHANGED.
HHS itself has maintained since the requirements were instituted that the elimination of the backlog would not be possible. June’s report projects 950,520 claims will remain by 2021, but this projection is still very far from meeting the court order.
HHS blames funding.
But even significant increase of funding (from about $107 million in 2017, to $242 million in 2018) will not cure the problem! I find it very disturbing that $242 million could not eliminate the Medicare appeal backlog. So what will happen when HHS fails to meet the Court’s mandate of a 30% reduction of the backlog by the end of 2017? Hold the Secretary in contempt?
The court in Burwell drafted a “what if” into the Decision—the Court stated: “if [HHS] fails to meet [these] deadlines, Plaintiffs may move for default judgment or to otherwise enforce the writ of mandamus.” This allows the Court authority to enforce its Decision, but it has not motivated HHS to try any innovative procedures to reduce the backlog. So far no additional actions have been attempted, and the backlog remains.
If HHS is in violation of the Court Order at the end of 2017, the Court could issue harsh penalties. (Or the Court could do nothing and be a complete disappointment).