Monthly Archives: December 2019

Fifth Circuit Rules Individual Mandate Unconstitutional but Leaves ACA’s Fate Uncertain

Extra, extra, read all about it: Breaking News!

In a 2-1 decision issued December 18, a Fifth Circuit panel held that the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is unconstitutional after Congress zeroed out the penalty in tax reform legislation.

Although the ruling was a victory for the 18 Republican-led states that initiated the challenge to the ACA, the appeals court side-stepped the critical issue of severability—i.e., whether other parts of the sprawling health care law could stand without the mandate—remanding to the district court for further proceedings.

In December 2018, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that no part of the ACA could stand after the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) essentially eliminated the ACA’s “shared responsibility payment” for failing to comply with the mandate to buy insurance. The judgment was stayed pending appeal.

As a practical matter, the panel decision maintains the status quo and prolongs the litigation, likely leaving a final resolution of the ACA’s fate until after the 2020 elections.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who headed the coalition of mostly Democratic-led states that intervened to defend the law, said California “will move swiftly to challenge this decision.”

“For now, the President got the gift he wanted—uncertainty in the healthcare system and a pathway to repeal—so that the healthcare that seniors, workers and families secured under the Affordable Care Act can be yanked from under them,” Becerra said in a statement.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton applauded the panel’s decision, saying the opinion recognized “that the only reason the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare in 2012 was Congress’ taxing power, and without the individual mandate’s penalty, that justification crumbled.”

Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, who President George W. Bush appointed to the Fifth Circuit, wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by Judge Kurt D. Englehardt, an appointee of President Donald Trump. The third panel member, Judge Carolyn Dineen King, was appointed by President Jimmy Carter, dissented.

The appeals court first concluded that the individual plaintiffs, the 18 plaintiff states, and the intervening states all had standing, an issue that the parties debated during oral arguments in July.

On the merits, the majority held once Congress zeroed out the shared responsibility payment, the individual mandate could no longer be upheld as a tax as it was under the Supreme Court’s decision in Nat’l Fed. of Independent Bus. v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

After finding the individual mandate was unconstitutional, the majority declined to resolve whether, or how much, of the ACA could stand on its own.

Instead, the appeals court remanded to the district court to determine “with more precision what provisions of the post-2017 ACA are indeed inseverable from the individual mandate.” The appeals court also told the lower court to consider the federal government’s “newly-suggested relief of enjoining the enforcement only of those provisions that injure the plaintiffs or declaring the Act unconstitutional only as to the plaintiff states and the two individual plaintiffs.”

The complexity of the ACA statutory scheme, which includes provisions regulating insurance, amending Medicare, funding preventative health care programs, enacting antifraud requirements, and establishing or expanding drug regulations, requires “a careful, granular approach” for determining severability, which the majority was not satisfied O’Connor had done.

In the majority’s view, O’Connor’s decision was incomplete because it didn’t sufficiently address the intent of the 2017 Congress in zeroing out the penalty in the TCJA. Nor did O’Connor parse “through the over 900 pages of the post-2017 ACA, explaining how particular segments are inextricably linked to the individual mandate.”

The appeals court therefore remanded with instructions for the district court “to employ a finer-toothed comb . . . and conduct a more searching inquiry into which provisions of the ACA Congress intended to be inseverable from the individual mandate.”

In her dissent, Judge King argued that by refusing to address severability, which in her view was plain given that Congress in 2017 removed the individual mandate’s enforcement mechanism while leaving the remaining provisions of the ACA intact, the majority “unnecessarily prolong[s] this litigation and the concomitant uncertainty over the future of the healthcare sector.”

King said she would vacate the district court’s order because none of the plaintiffs had standing to challenge the coverage requirement, would conclude that the coverage requirement is constitutional without the enforcement mechanism, and would find, in any event, the provision “entirely severable” from the remainder of the ACA.

Texas v. United States, No. 19-10011 (5th Cir. Dec. 18, 2019).

Article from American Health Lawyers Association.

New Mexico Settlement…Six Years Later!

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For the full press release.

This New Mexico settlement…What a long strange trip it’s been!

The litigation started in 2013 (six years ago). I was a partner at another Raleigh, NC law firm. Out of the blue, a woman called me from New Mexico and asked whether I would be willing to fly to New Mexico to testify before the General Assembly regarding Public Consulting Group (PCG) and the company’s extrapolation and audit history.

See blog, blog, and blog.

I did. I testified before the NM General Assembly’s subcommittee for behavioral health care. Sitting next to me was a gentleman from PCG. He happened to be the team leader (not sure what his exact title was) for PCG’s audits in NM and NC. In his defense, he graciously sat there and testified against me while I told some horror stories of PCG audits. See blog.

I met the 15 behavioral health care providers’ CEOs who were accused of credible allegations of fraud. Their stories were so emotional and heart-tugging. These people had dedicated their lives and careers to New Mexico’s most needy population – those on Medicaid and suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and/or developmental disabilities – not for money, but because they cared. Then June 24, 2013, the State of New Mexico accused them all of credible allegations of fraud. NM’s proof? A PCG audit that found no credible allegations of fraud. But Human Services Department (HSD) instructed PCG to remove “no credible allegations of fraud,” and HSD referred the audits to the Attorney General (AG) claiming that credible allegations of fraud existed. Sound like a movie? It could be; it is a conspiracy theory story along the lines of Area 51. Is it a coincidence that Area 51 and the NM behavioral health care debacle both occurred in NM?

I’d like to get some sleep before I travel
But if you got a warrant, I guess you’re gonna come in.” – Grateful Dead

A timeline of the events, starting in 2013, has been memorialized by multiple news organizations. See Timeline.

“June 24 — An audit paid for by the New Mexico Human Services Department and conducted by Public Consulting Group (PCG) finds that nearly $33.8 million in Medicaid overpayments were made to 15 behavioral health providers in the state.

June 24 — New Mexico Human Services Department notifies the 15 behavioral health providers that there is a “credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending,” and immediately suspends all Medicaid payments.

June 25 — Officials with the New Mexico Human Services Department send initial contracts to five Arizona companies: Agave Health Inc.Valle Del SolLa Frontera Inc.Southwest Network Inc., and Turqouise Health and Wellness, Inc., to temporarily take over New Mexico behavioral health organizations for a combined price tag of $17.85 million. It’s estimated the move will impact about 30,000 patients. From a July 18 email: “I am following up on the proposed contract between HSD and Open Skies Healthcare (affiliated with Southwest Network, located in Phoenix). On July 3, 2013, I responded to Larry’s [Heyeck, Deputy General Counsel for HSD] June 25 email concerning the contract…”

July 17 – Eight agencies go to U.S. District Court to restore funding.

July 25 – A memo generated by one of the 15 affected providers, TeamBuilders, indicates it will stop taking new clients.

July 25 – A state district judge turns the PCG audit over to New Mexico State Auditor Hector Balderas, and orders the audit protected from public disclosure.

Aug. 21 – In a 15-1 vote New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee objects to the Human Services Department moving $10 million from it’s budget to pay Arizona agencies to take over New Mexico providers due to concerns over secrecy surrounding the process.

Aug. 27 – New Mexico In Depth and the Las Cruces Sun-Newsfile a lawsuit demanding the public release of the PCG audit.

Aug. 28 – Federal officials hold conference call to hear about widespread disruptions to clients of behavioral health providers in transition.

Aug. 29 – An Inspection of Public Records Act request filed by KUNM reveals contract communications between New Mexico Human Services Department officials and Arizona providers as early as May 29, a full month before the audit was released by Public Consulting Group.

Sept. 3 – Public Consulting Group representative Thomas Aldridge tells the New Mexico Legislative Behavioral Health Subcommittee that he helped state officials vet at least one Arizona firm before it even began its audit of agencies in the state.

Sept. 3 — Lawyer Knicole Emanuel testifies to ongoing problems with PCG audits conducted in North Carolina as well as lawsuits triggered by PCG activities. “In some of the PCG audits that I have encountered, PCG has said the Medicaid provider owes $700,000, $800,000, $1.5 million, these exorbitant amounts, and at the end of the day when they look at all the documents, it goes down to like $200 or $300.”

Sept. 10 – The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that political ads defending Gov. Susana Martinez have begun rolling out, framing the behavioral health takeover as a crackdown on Medicaid fraud.”

I litigated 4 administrative appeals. Even after the NM AG came out and stated that there was no fraud, HSD accused the providers of owing alleged overpayments, some upwards of $12 million. These amounts were extrapolated.

In the very first administrative appeal, for The Counseling Center, the extrapolation expert was one of HSD’s attorneys. Upon questions regarding his extrapolation and statistical experience and the foundation for his expertise, he testified that took a class on statistics in college. I guess I could be a bowling expert.

PCG only testified in the first two administrative appeals. I guess after PCG testified that they were never given the opportunity to finish their audit due to HSD and that PCG found no fraud, but HSD removed that language from the report, HSD smartened up and stopped calling PCG as a witness. PCG certainly was not bolstering HSD’s position.

For three of the administrative appeals, we had the same administrative law judge (ALJ), who appeared to have some experience as an ALJ. For one of the appeals, we had a younger gentleman as the ALJ, who, according to LINKEDIN, was a professional photographer.

About 5 years after the accusations of fraud, the AG came out and exonerated all the providers. Apparently, there never was any fraud. Only accusations. These exonerations, however, did not stop the allegations of overpayments to HSD. The exonerations also did not stop these companies from going out of business, being tried as fraudsters in the eyes of the public, losing their companies, firing staff, closing their doors, and losing everything.

This was all done under the administration of Susana Martinez – not saying that politics played a huge role in the act of overthrowing these providers.

The providers all appealed their alleged overpayments and filed a lawsuit against HSD and the State for damages suffered from the original allegation of fraud that was found to be meritless.

After an election and a new administration took control, the State of New Mexico settled with the providers, as you can see from the above press release.

FYI building in Las Cruces, NM.

During the long journey over the past 6 years, one of the CEOs, Jose Frietz, passed away. He had started his company Families & Youth, Inc. in 1977. A month before he died on March 2, 2016, the AG exonerated FYI.

In 2013, Larry Heyeck was one of the attorneys for HSD. Multiple times during the witch hunt for Medicaid fraud, it appeared that Heyeck had some sort of personal vendetta against the 15 providers. According to one article, “Heyeck singled out Roque Garcia, former acting CEO of Southwest Counseling Services (Las Cruces), who was a recipient of the payments and asked legislators, “What does this mean? How can this money be accounted for to ensure that it isn’t used for private benefit?” Heyeck then asserted that Garcia had abused agency travel funds largely paid for by Medicaid through lavish travel to resort destinations in a private aircraft.”

Garcia wasn’t the only provider accused of misappropriating Medicaid funds. Shannon Freedle and his wife Lorraine were ostracized for having their abode in Hawaii.

Larry Heyeck, had an article published in the December 2012’s American Bar Association’s “The Health Lawyer” discussing the effect of 42 CFR 455.23 on Medicaid fraud and suspensions of Medicaid reimbursements. It was entitled, “Medicaid Payment Holds Due to Credible Allegations of Fraud.” Seem apropos?

By 2016, all 15 providers were cleared of allegations of fraud, but most were out of business.

Now – December 4, 2019 – a press release is disseminated to show that the last of the providers settled with the State of New Mexico. What the press release fails to express is the struggle, the financial and non-financial damages, the emotional turmoil, and the devastation these companies have endured over the past 6 years. No amount of money could ever right their catastrophic, past 6-years or the complete demise of their companies based on erroneous allegations of fraud.

Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me; Other times, I can barely see; Lately, it occurs to me; What a long, strange trip it’s been.” – Grateful Dead