Category Archives: US Supreme Court

Minor Documentation Errors, But Being Accused of a Medicare or Medicaid Overpayment? Not So Fast!!

In a January 11, 2018, opinion, a district court in Florida held that once the government learns of possible regulatory noncompliance or mistakes in billings Medicare or Medicaid, but continues to reimburse the provider for later claims – the fact that the government continues to reimburse the provider – can be evidence in court that the alleged documentation errors are minor and that, if the services are actually rendered, despite the minor mistakes, the provider should not be liable under the False Claims Act.

What?

Here is an example: Provider Smith undergoes a post-payment review of claims from dates of service January 1, 2016 – January 1, 2017. It is February 1, 2018. Today, Smith is told by the RAC auditor that he owes $1 million. Smith appeals the adverse decision. However, despite the accusation of $1 million overpayment, Smith continues providing medically necessary services the exact same way, he did in 2016. Despite the supposed outcome of the post-payment review, Smith continues to bill Medicare and Medicaid for services rendered in the exact same way that he did in 2016.

At least, according to UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND STATE OF FLORIDA v. SALUS REHABILITATION, LLC, if Smith continues to be reimbursed for services rendered, this continued reimbursement can be evidence in court that Smith is doing nothing wrong.

Many of my clients who are undergoing post-payment or prepayment reviews decrease or cease all together billing for future services rendered. First, and obviously, stopping or decreasing billings will adversely affect them. Many of those clients will be financially prohibited from defending the post or prepayment review audit because they won’t have enough funds to pay for an attorney. Secondly, and less obvious, at least according to the recent decision in Florida district court mentioned above, continuing to bill for and get reimbursed fo services rendered and billed to Medicare and/or Medicaid can be evidence in court that you are doing nothing wrong.

The facts of the Salus Rehabilitation case, are as follows:

A former employee of a health care system comprising of 53 specialized nursing facilities (“Salus”) filed a qui tam claim in federal court asserting that Salus billed the government for unnecessary, inadequate, or incompetent service.

Break from the facts of the case to explain qui tam actions: A former employee who brings a qui tam action is called the “relator.” In general, the reason that former employees bring qui tam cases is money. Relators get anywhere between 15 -30 % of the award of damages. Many qui tam actions result in multi million dollar awards in damages – meaning that a relator can get rich quickly by tattling on (or accusing) a former employer. Qui tam actions are jury trials (why this is important will be explained below).

Come and listen to a story ’bout a man named Jed
Poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed
Then one day he was shooting for some food,
And up through the ground come a bubbling crude
(Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea)

In the Salus case, the relator (Jed) asserted that Salus failured to maintain a “comprehensive care plan,” ostensibly required by a Medicaid regulation and that this failure rendered Salus’ Medicaid claims fraudulent. Also, Jed asserted that a handful of paperwork defects (for example, unsigned or undated documents) demonstrated that Salus never provided the therapy purported by the paperwork and billed to Medicare. Jed won almost $350 million based on the theory “that upcoding of RUG levels and failure to maintain care plans made [the defendants’] claims to Medicare and Medicaid false or fraudulent.”  Oil, that is, black gold, Texas tea. You know Jed was celebrating like it was 1999.

Salus did not take it lying down.

The jury had awarded Jed $350 million. But in the legal world there is a legal tool if a losing party believes that the jury rendered an incorrect decision. It is called a Judgment as a Matter of Law. When a party files a Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, it is decided by the standard of whether a reasonable jury could find in favor of the party opposing the Motion, but it is decided by a judge.

In Salus, the Judge found that the verdict awarding Jed of $350 million could not be upheld. The Judge found that Jed’s burden was to show that the federal government and the state government did not know about the alleged record-keeping deficiencies but, had the governments known, the governments would have refused to pay Salus for services rendered, products delivered, and costs incurred. The Judge said that the record was deplete of any evidence that the governments would have refused to pay Salus. The Judge went so far to say that, theoretically, the governments could have implemented a less severe punishment, such as a warning or a plan or correction. Regardless, what the government MAY have done was not in the record. Specifically, the Judge held that “The resulting verdict (the $350 million to Jed), which perpetrates one of the forbidden “traps, zaps, and zingers” mentioned earlier, cannot stand. The judgment effects an unwarranted, unjustified, unconscionable, and probably unconstitutional forfeiture — times three — sufficient in proportion and irrationality to deter any prudent business from providing services and products to a government armed with the untethered and hair-trigger artillery of a False Claims Act invoked by a heavily invested relator.”

Wow. In other words, the Judge is saying that the verdict, which awarded Jed $350 million, will cause health care providers to NOT accept Medicare and Medicaid if the government is allowed to call every mistake in documentation “fraud,” or a violation of the False Claims Act. The Judge was not ok with this “slippery slope” result. Maybe he/she depends on Medicare…maybe he/she has a family member dependent on Medicaid…who knows? Regardless, this a WIN for providers!!

Legally, the Judge in Salus hung his hat on Universal Health Services, Inc. v. Escobar, 136 S. Ct. 1989 (2016), a Supreme Court case. In Escobar, the Supreme Court held that nit-picky documentation errors are not material and that materiality is required to condemn a provider under the False Claims Act. Escobar “necessarily means that if a service is non-compliant with a statute, a rule, or a contract; if the non-compliance is disclosed to, or discovered by, the United States; and if the United States pays notwithstanding the disclosed or discovered non-compliance, the False Claims Act provides a relator no claim for “implied false certification.”” (emphasis added). In other words, keep billing. If you are paid, then you can use that as evidence in court.

Escobar specifies that a “rigorous” and “demanding” standard for materiality and scienter precludes a False Claims Act claim based on a “minor or unsubstantial” or a “garden-variety” breach of contract or regulatory violation. Instead, Escobar assumes and enforces a course of dealing between the government and a supplier of goods or services that rests comfortably on proven and successful principles of exchange — fair value given for fair value received. Get it?? This is the first time that I have seen a judge be smart and intuitive enough to say – hey – providers are not perfect…and that’s ok. Providers may have insignificant documentation errors. But it is fundamentally unfair to prosecute a provider under the False Claims Act, which the Act is extraordinarily harsh and punitive, for minor, “garden variety” mistakes.

Granted, Salus was decided with a provider being prosecuted under the False Claims Act and not being accused of a pre or post-payment review finding of alleged overpayment.

But, isn’t it analogous?

A provider being accused that it owes $1 million because of minor documentation errors – but did actually provide the medically necessary services – should be afforded the same understanding that Salus was afforded. The mistakes need to be material. Minor mistakes should not be reasons for a 100% recoupment. Because there must be a course of dealing between the government and a supplier of goods or services that rests comfortably on proven and successful principles of exchange — fair value given for fair value received.

Oil has dried up, Jeb.

Suspension of Medicare Reimbursements – Not Over 180 Days! Medicaid – Indefinite?!

When you get accused of Medicare or Medicaid fraud or of an alleged overpayment, the federal and state governments have the authority to suspend your reimbursements. If you rely heavily on Medicaid or Medicare, this suspension can be financially devastating. If your Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements are suspended, you have to hire an attorney. And, somehow, you have to be able to afford such legal representation without reimbursements. Sadly, this is why many providers simply go out of business when their reimbursements are suspended.

But, legally, how long can the state or federal government suspend your Medicare or Medicaid payments without due process?

According to 42 C.F.R. 405.371, the federal government may suspend your Medicare reimbursements upon ” reliable information that an overpayment exists or that the payments to be made may not be correct, although additional information may be needed for a determination.” However, for Medicare, there is a general rule that the suspension may not last more than 180 days. MedPro Health Providers, LLC v. Hargan, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173441 *2.

There are also procedural safeguards. A Medicare provider must be provided notice prior to a suspension and given the opportunity to submit a rebuttal statement explaining why the suspension should not be implemented. Medicare must, within 15 days, consider the rebuttal, including any material submitted. The Medicare Integrity Manual states that the material provided by the provider must be reviewed carefully.

Juxtapose Medicaid:

42 CFR 455.23 states that “The State Medicaid agency must suspend all Medicaid payments to a provider after the agency determines there is a credible allegation of fraud for which an investigation is pending under the Medicaid program against an individual or entity unless the agency has good cause to not suspend payments or to suspend payment only in part.”

Notice the differences…

Number one: In the Medicare regulation, the word used is “may” suspend.  In the Medicaid regulation, the word used is “must” suspend. This difference between may and must may not resonate as a huge difference, but, in the legal world, it is. You see, “must” denotes that there is no discretion (even though there is discretion in the good cause exception). On the other hand, “may” suggests more discretionary power in the decision.

Number two: In the Medicare regulation, notice is required. It reads, “Except as provided in paragraphs (d) and (e) of this section, CMS or the Medicare contractor suspends payments only after it has complied with the procedural requirements set forth at § 405.372.” 405.372 reads the Medicare contractor must notify the provider or supplier of the intention to suspend payments, in whole or in part, and the reasons for making the suspension. In the Medicaid regulation, no notice is required. 455.23 reads “The State Medicaid agency may  suspend payments without first notifying the provider of its intention to suspend such payments.”

Number three: In the Medicare regulation, a general limit of the reimbursement suspension is imposed, which is 180 days. In the Medicaid regulation, the regulations states that the suspension is “temporary” and must be lifted after either of the following (1) there is a determination of no credible allegations of fraud or (2) the legal proceedings regarding the alleged fraud are complete.

Yet I have seen States blatantly violate the “temporary” requirement. Consider the New Mexico situation. All the behavioral health care providers who were accused of Medicaid fraud have been cleared by the Attorney General. The regulation states that the suspension must be lifted upon either of the following – meaning, if one situation is met, the suspension must be lifted. Well, the Attorney General has cleared all the New Mexico behavioral health care providers of fraud. Criterion is met. But the suspension has not been lifted. The Health Services Department (HSD) has not lifted the suspension. This suspension has continued for 4 1/2 years. It began June 24, 2013. See blog, blog, and blog. Here is a timeline of events.

Why is there such a disparity in treatment with Medicare providers versus Medicaid providers?

The first thing that comes to mind is that Medicare is a fully federal program, while Medicaid is state-run. Although a portion of the funds for Medicaid comes from the federal government.

Secondly, Medicare patients pay part of costs through deductibles for hospital and other costs. Small monthly premiums are required for non-hospital coverage. Whereas, Medicaid patients pay nothing.

Thirdly, Medicare is for the elderly, and Medicaid is for the impoverished.

But should these differences between the two programs create such a disparity in due process and the length of reimbursement suspensions for health care providers? Why is a Medicare provider generally only susceptible to a 180 day suspension, while a Medicaid provider can be a victim of a 4 1/2 year suspension?

Parity, as it relates to mental health and substance abuse, prohibits insurers or health care service plans from discriminating between coverage offered for mental illness, serious mental illness, substance abuse, and other physical disorders and diseases. In short, parity requires insurers to provide the same level of benefits for mental illness, serious mental illness or substance abuse as for other physical disorders and diseases.

Does parity apply to Medicare and Medicaid providers?

Most of Medicare and Medicaid law is interpreted by administrative law judges. Most of the time, a health care provider, who is not receiving reimbursements cannot fund an appeal to Superior Court, the Court of Appeals, and, finally the Supreme Court. Going to the Supreme Court costs so much that most normal people will never present before the Supreme Court…it takes hundreds and hundreds upon thousands of dollars.

In January 1962, a man held in a Florida prison cell wrote a note to the United States Supreme Court. He’d been charged with breaking into a pool hall, stealing some Cokes, beer, and change, and was handed a five-year sentence after he represented himself because he couldn’t pay for a lawyer. Clarence Earl Gideon’s penciled message eventually led to the Supreme Court’s historic 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, reaffirming the right to a criminal defense and requiring states to provide a defense attorney to those who can’t afford one. But it does not apply to civil cases.

Furthermore, pro bono attorneys and legal aid attorneys, although much-needed for recipients, will not represent a provider.

So, until a health care provider, who is a gaga-zillionaire, pushes a lawsuit to the Supreme Court, our Medicare and Medicaid law will continue to be interpreted by administrative law judges and, perhaps, occasionally, by Superior Court. Do not take this message and interpret that I think that administrative law judges and Superior Court judges are incapable of interpreting the laws and fairly applying them to certain cases. That is the opposite of what I think. The point is that if the case law never gets to the Supreme Court, we will never have consistency in Medicare and Medicaid law. A District Court in New Mexico could define “temporary” in suspensions of Medicare and/or Medicaid reimbursements as 1 year. Another District Court in New York could define “temporary” as 1 month. Consistency in interpreting laws only happens once the Supreme Court weighs in.

Until then, stay thirsty, my friend.

Knicole Emanuel Featured on Hospital Finance Podcast – Medicare Appeal Backlog (Legal Update)

On September 6, 2017, I appeared on the Besler Hospital Finance Podcast regarding:

Update on the Medicare appeals backlog [PODCAST]

Feel free to listen to the podcast, download it, and share with others!

 

The Feds Criminally Investigating DHHS! Is Its Scope Too Narrow and What Are Possible Consequences?

DHHS is under criminal investigation by the federal government for allegedly overpaying employees without a bid process, and, simply, mismanaging and overspending our Medicaid tax dollars. See blog.

When I first started writing this blog, I opined that the federal investigation should be broadened. While I still believe so, the results of broadening the scope of a federal investigation could be catastrophic for our Medicaid providers and recipients. So I am metaphorically torn between wanting to shine light on tax payer waste and wanting to shield NC Medicaid providers and recipients from the consequences of penalties and sanctions on NC DHHS. Because, think about it, who would be harmed if NC lost federal funding for Medicaid?

[BTW, of note: These subpoenas were received July 28, 2015. Aldona Wos announced her resignation on August 5, 2015, after receipt of subpoenas. The Subpoenas demand an appearance on August 18, 2015, which, obviously, has already passed, yet we have no intel as to the occurrences on August 18, 2015. If anyone has information, let me know.]

Let’s explore:

Does this criminal investigation go far enough? Should the feds investigate more Medicaid mismanagement over and above the salaries of DHHS employees? What are the potential consequences if NC is sanctioned for violating Medicaid regulations? How could a sanction affect providers and recipients?

DHHS’ employees are not the only highly compensated parties when it comes to our Medicaid dollars! It is without question that the contracts with vendors with whom DHHS contracts contain astronomically high figures. For example, DHHS hired Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) to implement the NCTracks software for $265 million. Furthermore, there is no mention of the lack of supervision of the managed care organizations (MCOs) and the compensation for executives of MCOs being equal to that of the President of the United States in the Subpoenas.

The subpoenas are limited in scope as to documents related to hiring and the employment terms surrounding DHHS employees. As I just said, there is no mention of violations of bid processes for vendors or contractors, except as to Alvarez & Marsal, and nothing as to the MCOs.

Specifically, the subpoena is requesting documents germane to the following:

  • Les Merritt, a former state auditor who stepped down from the North Carolina State Ethics Commission after WRAL News raised questions about potential conflicts of interest created by his service contract with DHHS;
  • Thomas Adams, a former chief of staff who received more than $37,000 as “severance” after he served just one month on the job;
  • Angie Sligh, the former director of the state’s upgraded Medicaid payment system who faced allegations of nepotism and the waste of $1.6 million in payments to under-qualified workers for wages, unjustified overtime and holiday pay in a 2015 state audit;
  • Joe Hauck, an employee of Wos’ husband who landed a lucrative contract that put him among the highest-paid workers at DHHS;
  • Alvarez & Marsal, a consulting firm overseeing agency budget forecasting under a no-bid contract that has nearly tripled in value, to at least $8 million;

See WRAL.com.

Possible penalties:

Most likely, the penalties imposed would be more civil in nature and encompass suspensions, recoupments, and/or reductions to the federal matching. Possibly a complete termination of all federal matching funds, at the worst.

42 CFR Part 430, Subpart C – of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) covers “Grants; Reviews and Audits; Withholding for Failure To Comply; Deferral and Disallowance of Claims; Reduction of Federal Medicaid Payments”

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is charged with the oversight of all 50 states’ management of Medicaid, which makes CMS very busy and with solid job security.

“The Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) periodically audits State operations in order to determine whether—(1) The program is being operated in a cost-efficient manner; and
(2) Funds are being properly expended for the purposes for which they were appropriated under Federal and State law and regulations.” 42 CFR 430.33.

CMS may withhold federal funding, although reasonable notice and opportunity for a hearing is required (unlike the reimbursement suspensions from providers upon “credible” (or not) allegations of fraud).

If the Administrator of a hearing finds North Carolina non compliant with federal regulations, CMS may withhold, in whole or in part, our reimbursements until we remedy such deficiency. Similar to health care providers’ appeals, if the State of North Carolina is dissatisfied with the result of the hearing, NC may file for Judicial Review. Theoretically, NC could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Other penalties could include reductions of (1) the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage; (2) the amount of State expenditures subject to FFP; (3) the rates of FFP; and/or (4) the amount otherwise payable to the state.

As a reminder, the penalties listed above are civil penalties, and NC is under criminal investigation; however, I could not fathom that the criminal penalties would differ far from the civil allowable penalties. What are the feds going to do? Throw Wos in jail? Highly unlikely.

The subpoena was addressed to:

subpoena

NC DHHS, attention the Custodian of Records. In NC, public records requests go to Kevin V. Howell, Legal Communications Coordinator, DHHS.

But is the federal government’s criminal investigation of DHHS too narrow in scope?

If we are investigating DHHS employees’ salaries and bid processes, should we not also look into the salaries of DHHS’ agents, such as the salaries for employees of MCOs? And the contracts’ price tags for DHHS vendors?

Turning to the MCOs, who are the managers of a fire hose of Medicaid funds with little to no supervision, I liken the MCOs’ current stance on the tax dollars provided to the MCOs as the Lion, who hunted with the Fox and the Jackal from Aesop’s Fables.

The Lion went once a-hunting along with the Fox, the Jackal, and the Wolf. They hunted and they hunted till at last they surprised a Stag, and soon took its life. Then came the question how the spoil should be divided. “Quarter me this Stag,” roared the Lion; so the other animals skinned it and cut it into four parts. Then the Lion took his stand in front of the carcass and pronounced judgment: The first quarter is for me in my capacity as King of Beasts; the second is mine as arbiter; another share comes to me for my part in the chase; and as for the fourth quarter, well, as for that, I should like to see which of you will dare to lay a paw upon it.”

“Humph,” grumbled the Fox as he walked away with his tail between his legs; but he spoke in a low growl:

Moral of Aesop’s Fable: “You may share the labours of the great, but you will not share the spoil.”

At least as to DHHS employees’ salaries, the federal government is investigating any potential mismanagement of Medicaid funds due to exorbitant salaries, which were compensated with tax dollars.

Maybe this investigation is only the beginning of more forced accountability as to mismanaging tax dollars with Medicaid administrative costs.

One can hope…(but you do not always want what you wish for…because the consequences to our state could be dire if the investigation were broadened and non compliance found).

Possible Ramifications:

Let us quickly contemplate the possible consequences of any of the above-mentioned penalties, whether civil or criminal in nature, on Medicaid recipients.

To the extent that you believe that the reimbursement rates are already too low, that medically necessary services are not being authorized, that limitations to the amount services are being unduly enforced…Imagine that NC lost our federal funding completely. We would lose approximately 60% of our Medicaid budget.

All our “voluntary” Medicaid-covered services would, most likely, be terminated. Personal care services (PCS) is an optional Medicaid-covered service.

With only 40% of our Medicaid budget, I could not imagine that we would have much money left to pay providers for services rendered to Medicaid recipients after paying our hefty administrative costs, including overhead,payroll, vendor contracts, MCO disbursements, etc. We may even be forced to breach our contracts with our vendors for lack of funds, which would cause us to incur additional expenses.

All Medicaid providers could not be paid. Without payments to providers, Medicaid recipients would not receive medically necessary services.

Basically, it would be the next episode of “Fear the Walking Dead.”

Hopefully, because the ramifications of such penalties would be so drastic, the federal government will not impose such sanctions lightly. Sanctions of such magnitude would be a last resort if we simply refused to remedy whatever deficiencies are found.

Otherwise, it could be the zombie apocalypse, but the Lion’s would be forced to share.

Supreme Court Upholds Obamacare! Three Judges Dissent, Calling the Decision Absurd!

Mark this day, June 25,2015 (also my daughter’s 10th birthday) as also the birth of a new state.  Our country, according to the Supreme Court’s decision in King v. Burwell, now consists of 51 states.  The Health and Human Services (HHS) is now our 51st state.

Today the Supreme Court decided the King v. Burwell case.

If you recall, this case was to determine whether the plain language of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) should be upheld.  According to the ACA, people were to receive tax subsidies or “premium tax credits” to subsidize certain purchases of health insurance made on Exchanges, but only those enrolled in through an Exchange established by the State under [§18031]. §36B(c)(2)(A).

See blog.

“Specifically, the question presented is whether the Act’s tax credits are available in States that have a Federal Exchange.”

“At this point, 16 States and the District of Columbia have established their own Exchanges; the other 34 States have elected to have HHS do so.”

In Justice Scalia’s words, “This case requires us to decide whether someone who buys insurance on an Exchange established by the Secretary gets tax credits. You would think the answer would be obvious—so obvious there would hardly be a need for the Supreme Court to hear a case about it. In order to receive any money under §36B, an individual must enroll in an insurance plan through an “Exchange established by the State.” The Secretary of Health and Human Services is not a State. So an Exchange established by the Secretary is not an Exchange established by the State—which means people who buy health insurance through such an Exchange get no money under §36B.”

However, the majority disagrees.

Apparently, HHS is now our 51st state.

The upshot of the Decision is that the majority found that, despite our country’s deep-rooted, case law precedent that when a statute is unambiguous that the plain meaning of the statute prevails.  Despite hundreds of years of the Supreme Court upholding statutes’ clear meanings, the Supreme Court, in this case, decided that “[i]n extraordinary cases, however, there may be reason to hesitate before concluding that Congress has intended such an implicit delegation.”

Therefore, when the ACA became law, and the word “state” was used, surely, Congress meant “state and/or federal government.”  Or, on the other hand, let’s just call HHS a state for the purpose of the ACA.

In Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito’s opinions, the decision is absurd.  In the dissent they write, “The Court holds that when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act says “Exchange established by the State” it means “Exchange established by the State or the Federal Government.” That is of course quite absurd, and the Court’s 21 pages of explanation make it no less so.”

NC Medicaid Reimbursement Rates for Primary Care Physicians Slashed; Is a Potential NC Lawsuit Looming?

Here is my follow-up from yesterday’s blog post, “NC Docs Face Retroactive Medicaid Rate Cut.

Nearly one-third of physicians say they will not accept new Medicaid patients, according to a new study.  Is this shocking in light of the end of the ACA enhanced payments for primary physicians, NC’s implementation of a 3% reimbursement rate cut for primary care physicians, and the additional 1% reimbursement rate cut?  No, this is not shocking. It merely makes economic sense.

Want more physicians to accept Medicaid? Increase reimbursement rates!

Here, in NC, the Medicaid reimbursement rates for primary care physicians and pediatricians have spiraled downward from a trifecta resulting in an epically, low parlay. They say things happen in threes…

(1) With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Medicaid reimbursement rate for certain primary care services increased to reimburse 100% of Medicare Cost Share for services paid in 2013 and 2014.  This enhanced payment stopped on January 1, 2015.

(2) Concurrently on January 1, 2015, Medicaid reimbursement rates for evaluation and management and vaccination services were decreased by 3% due to enactments in the 2013 NC General Assembly session.

(3) Concurrently on January 1, 2015, Medicaid reimbursement rates for evaluation and management and vaccination services were decreased by 1% due to enactments in the 2014 NC General Assembly session.

The effect of the trifecta of Medicaid reimbursement rates for certain procedure codes for primary care physicians can be seen below.

CCNC

As a result, a physician currently receiving 100% of the Medicare rates will see a 16% to 24% reduction in certain E&M and vaccine procedure codes for Medicaid services rendered after January 1, 2015.

Are physicians (and all other types of health care providers) powerless against the slashing and gnashing of Medicaid reimbursement rates due to budgetary concerns?

No!  You are NOT powerless!  Be informed!!

Section 30(A) of the Medicaid Act states that:

“A state plan for medical assistance must –

Provide such methods and procedures relating to the utilization of, and the payment for, care and services available under the plan (including but not limited to utilization review plans as provided for in section 1396b(i)(4) of this title) as may be necessary to safeguard against unnecessary utilization of such care and services and to assure that payments are consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care and are sufficient to enlist enough providers so that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area.”

Notice those three key goals:

  • Quality of care
  • Sufficient to enlist enough providers
  • So that care and services are available under the plan at least to the extent that such care and services are available to the general population in the geographic area

Courts across the country have held that low Medicaid reimbursement rates which are set due to budgetary factors and fail to consider federally mandated factors, such as access to care or cost of care, are in violation of federal law.  Courts have further held that Medicaid reimbursement rates cannot be set based solely on budgetary reasons.

For example, U.S. District Court Judge Adalberto Jordan held in a 2014 Florida case that:

“I conclude that while reimbursement rates are not the only factor determining whether providers participate in Medicaid, they are by far the most important factor, and that a sufficient increase in reimbursement rates will lead to a substantial increase in provider participation and a corresponding increase to access to care.”

“Given the record, I conclude that plaintiffs have shown that achieving adequate provider enrollment in Medicaid – and for those providers to meaningfully open their practices to Medicaid children – requires compensation to be set at least at the Medicare level.

Judge Jordan is not alone.  Over the past two decades, similar cases have been filed in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Texas, and D.C. [Notice: Not in NC].  These lawsuits demanding higher reimbursement rates have largely succeeded.

There is also a pending Supreme Court case that I blogged about here.

Increasing the Medicaid reimbursement rates is vital for Medicaid recipients and access to care.  Low reimbursement rates cause physicians to cease accepting Medicaid patients.  Therefore, these lawsuits demanding increased reimbursement rates benefit both the Medicaid recipients and the physicians providing the services.

According to the above-mentioned study, in 2011, “96 percent of physicians accepted new patients in 2011, rates varied by payment source: 31 percent of physicians were unwilling to accept any new Medicaid patients; 17 percent would not accept new Medicare patients; and 18 percent of physicians would not accept new privately insured patients.”

It also found this obvious fact:  “Higher state Medicaid-to-Medicare fee ratios were correlated with greater acceptance of new Medicaid patients.”

Ever heard the phrase: “You get what you pay for.”?

A few months ago, my husband brought home a box of wine.  Yes, a box of wine.  Surely you have noticed those boxes of wine at Harris Teeter.  I tried a sip.  It was ok.  I’m no wine connoisseur.  But I woke the next morning with a terrible headache after only consuming a couple of glasses of wine.  I’m not sure whether the cheaper boxed wine has a higher level of tannins, or what, but I do not get headaches off of 2 glasses of wine when the wine bottle is, at least, $10.  You get what you pay for.

The same is true in service industries.  Want a cheap lawyer? You get what you pay for.  Want a cheap contractor? You get what you pay for.

So why do we expect physicians to provide the same quality of care in order to receive $10 versus $60?  Because physicians took the Hippocratic Oath?  Because physicians have an ethical duty to treat patients equally?

While it is correct that physicians take the Hippocratic Oath and have an ethical duty to their clients, it’s for these exact reasons that many doctors simply refuse to accept Medicaid.  It costs the doctor the same office rental, nurse salaries, and time devoted to patients to treat a person with Blue Cross Blue Shield as it does a person on Medicaid.  However, the compensation is vastly different.

Why?  Why the different rates if the cost of care is equal?

Budgetary reasons.

Unlike private insurance, Medicaid is paid with tax dollars.  Each year, the General Assembly determines our Medicaid budget.  Reducing Medicaid reimbursement rates, by even 1%, can affect the national Medicaid budget by billions of dollars.

But, remember, rates cannot be set for merely budgetary reasons…

Is a potential lawsuit looming in NC’s not so distant future???

Argument analysis: Working out the broader implications of a Medicaid suit

This is a copy of an article written by William Baude on SCOTUSblog.

In the article, William analyzes the oral arguments for Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center, a very important Supreme Court case heard by the Justices January 20, 2015.  If you don’t recall the lawsuit, see my blog: “Low Medicaid Reimbursement Rates Violate the Supremacy Clause?!… The Supreme Court to Weigh In!

Here is the analysis:

The Supreme Court has heard a lot of preemption suits, but Tuesday’s arguments in Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center suggest that the Court has not yet agreed on what exactly the formal underpinnings of those suits are.

The case features a debate about the intersection of two lines of precedent. One line restricts the availability of a federal statutory cause of action unless Congress has deliberately included one. The other line makes a cause of action broadly available when the plaintiff seeks an injunction to enforce a constitutional provision. At issue in this case is whether suits to enforce the preemptive effect of a federal statute are more like constitutional injunctions or statutory suits.

Both lines of precedent were on full display at yesterday’s argument. Shortly after his argument started the state’s counsel, Carl Withroe, was pressed with questions about the many prior preemption cases the Court had heard. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg adverted to a list of fifty-seven cases attached to the Medicaid recipients’ brief that are alleged to fail under the state’s theory. Withroe made several different attempts to distinguish those cases, although he did not seem to fully satisfy the Court. Towards the end of Withroe’s argument, Justice Anthony Kennedy asked “Did I miss something? … I thought you were going to give us a principled way to say why this case is different from our other preemption cases.”

Deputy Solicitor General Ed Kneedler took the podium next, attempting to supply that principled basis. He argued that Spending Clause legislation, and Medicaid specifically, was different from the usual preemption case for reasons rooted in the history of equity practice. Traditional equitable remedies, he said, could vindicate a person’s “liberty,” “property,” or “business,” but Medicaid was none of those things because it was a spending program created by a cooperative agreement with the state. Once again, Justice Kennedy chimed in at the end of Kneedler’s time to question whether his theory really distinguished one of the Court’s prior cases, American Trucking Associations v. City of Los Angeles.

Representing the Medicaid recipients, attorney James Piotrowski also faced skepticism about the implications of his position, and seemed to embrace them more than to distinguish them. He openly conceded that his clients would not have a right to sue under the Court’s statutory cause of action cases or under Section 1983. But the Supremacy Clause suit, he stressed, would seek only the narrow remedy of an injunction.

Justice Samuel Alito asked Piotrowksi whether his argument implied that someone could challenge a state’s decision to legalize marijuana as preempted by federal drug laws. Yes, Piotrowksi agreed, so long as Article III standing was satisfied, there would indeed be a cause of action. (Though Justice Alito did not specifically mention a suit by a state, the question might have been inspired by the recent marijuana preemption lawsuit filed in the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction by two states — Oklahoma and Nebraska.)

And when Chief Justice John Roberts suggested to Piotrowski that his position would open “the courthouse door to everybody who says that federal law was not followed,” Piotrowski agreed: “Yes, your honor, that’s right. We open the courthouse doors.”

At the same time, Piotrowski also conceded that Congress could expressly preclude a preemption suit if it spoke clearly. The key, he argued, is that Congress’s decision not to create a statutory cause of action was not the same as a congressional decision to prohibit a cause of action that came from other background legal principles. Justice Kennedy did not ask Piotrowski any questions.

Lest this abbreviated summary make it seem like argument followed a clear path, I should say that there were also plenty of side points raised throughout. There were questions about how the state’s reimbursement rates related to its formula, a question from Justice Elena Kagan about why nobody from the federal Department of Health and Human Services had signed the federal government’s amicus brief, a response from Chief Justice Roberts about whether DHS was just trying to help the health-care sector “get a bigger chunk of the federal budget,” and a series of questions from Justice Stephen Breyer about the doctrine of “primary jurisdiction,” including a nostalgic reminiscence about the Civil Aeronautics Board “of blessed memory.” But the Justices also constantly reminded one another that the question was whether the suit could be brought, not whether it should prevail.

Four Justices have already answered that question in their dissent three years ago in Douglas v. Independent Living Center. Over the next few months, we will see if they have persuaded any of their colleagues to join them.

AZ Supreme Court Holds AZ Legislators Have Standing to Challenge AZ Law, But Media Mischaracterizing the Lawsuit

You know the old adage, “Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see?” –Benjamin Franklin.

Well the old adage still holds true, especially when it comes to journalists and the media interpreting and reporting on lawsuits that deal with Medicaid laws, and which, perhaps, only an infinitesimal, ancillary aspect may touch the issue of Medicaid expansion.

Even if the lawsuit will not impact Medicaid expansion, journalists and the media hype the lawsuits as “conservatives challenging Obamacare yet again,” which mischaracterizes the actual lawsuit.

It seems that the media have become so accustomed to polarizing the topic of Medicaid expansion that reporters seem incapable of truly assessing the issues objectively and reporting accordingly.  This has happened recently when the AZ Supreme Court rendered a decision December 31, 2014, regarding legal standing, not the constitutionality of Medicaid expansion as many journalists report.  Biggs, et al. v. Hon. Cooper, et al.

The Arizona Supreme Court only decided that 36 legislators have the legal standing to challenge the passage of House Bill 2010, which was signed into law as A.R.S. § 36-2901.08.

What is A.R.S. § 36-2901.08?

For starters, A.R.S. stands for Arizona Revised Statutes (ARS). For those of you who missed “Schoolhouse Rock” as a child, a statute is a law that is enacted by the legislative body and which governs the state. Statutes are considered “black letter law” and should be interpreted on their face value and plain meaning.

The content of 36-2901.08 allows the State of Arizona to expand Medicaid.  In addition to expanding Medicaid, 35-2901.08 assesses a levy on hospitals to aid in funding the expansion of Medicaid.

36 Arizona legislators voted against 36-2901.08. It passed by a simple majority and was signed into law. The 36 legislators, who voted against the bill, brought a lawsuit to enjoin the statute from being applied or enacted. The State of Arizona’s position is that the 36 legislators lack the legal standing to bring the lawsuit.

Here are the issues in the legislators’ case, BIGGS ET AL. v. HON. COOPER ET AL.:

1. Do the 36 legislators have the standing to bring an injunctive action enjoining Arizona from carrying out 36-2901.08?

2. If the answer to #1 is yes, then have the 36 legislators proven that 36-2901.08 was passed in violation of the AZ Constitution?

I’ve read a number of articles from journalists covering this matter who mischaracterize the Biggs lawsuit as a lawsuit brought by the Arizona legislators, predominantly Republicans, asking the Arizona Supreme Court to strike statute 36-2901.08 because the expansion of Medicaid is unconstitutional, or “challenging Governor Jan Brewer’s Medicaid expansion plan,” or “challenging the legality of the state’s Medicaid expansion…”

These journalists are mischaracterizing the Arizona Supreme Court’s opinion.  And I am not talking about journalists for small, local papers are making these mistakes…the above quotations are from “The New York Times” and “The Associated Press.”

So, let’s discuss the true, correct ramifications of the Arizona Supreme Court opinion in Biggs

First, the Biggs opinion does not hold that Medicaid expansion in Arizona or elsewhere is unconstitutional…nor does it decide whether Medicaid expansion in Arizona is invalid on its face.

The opinion, rendered December 31, 2014, only holds that the 36 legislators have the legal standing to bring the lawsuit…there is no holding as to constitutionality of Medicaid expansion, despite so many journalists across America stating it so.

What is standing?

Standing, or locus standi, is the capacity of a party to bring suit in court.  This is not a question of whether a person is physically capable of bringing a lawsuit, but whether the person prove that he or she has sustained or will sustain a direct injury or harm and that the harm is redressable (or can be fixed or set right by the lawsuit).

The issue on the Supreme Court level in Arizona is only the narrow issue of whether the 36 legislators have standing. Period.

The Arizona Supreme Court held that the 36 legislators do possess the requisite legal standing in order to bring the lawsuit.

Now, the case will be remanded (sent to a lower court), in this instance, to the Superior Court, for a new fact-finding trial now that the issue of standing has been resolved.  In other words, at the lower superior court level, the ref (judge) made a call that the football players on the team (36 legislators) were ineligible to play NCAA football (poor grades, were red-shirted last year), and the alleged ineligible players appealed the decision all the way up.  Now the NCAA (AZ Supreme Court) has determined that the players are eligible and the game will resume.

Again, despite the rhetoric put forth by numerous widespread journalists, the 36 legislators are not merely challenging Arizona Medicaid expansion on its face.

Instead, the Arizona Constitution requires that certain Acts that increase state revenues must pass the legislature by a supermajority vote. See Ariz. Const. art. 9, § 22(A).

Remember from the beginning of this blog that 36-2901.08 was passed by a simple majority.

The 36 legislators argue that the assessment of a levy on Arizona hospitals constitute an Act that requires a supermajority vote, which, obviously would require more than a straight 50% approval.

So the 36 legislators’ lawsuit in AZ is about whether 36-2901.08 needs a supermajority or simple majority to vote it into law.

Not whether Medicaid expansion is constitutional.

Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see…especially when it comes to journalists and media reporting on lawsuits regarding Medicaid rules and regulations.

Supreme Court Will Decide Whether Citizens in NC and 26 Other States Can Receive Tax Credits for Health Care Premiums!!

With a decision that, I can only imagine, ricocheted against the White House walls, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear King v. Burwell this past Friday, November 7, 2014, despite Obama’s administration’s request for the Supreme Court to postpone granting certiorari in order to wait for a D.C. circuit to re-visit an opinion, the Halbig ruling.

The Supreme Court’s decision in King could, potentially, have devastating consequences on the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, I write that last sentence with an asterisk. Journalists across the country are entitling articles, “Obamacare Is Doomed! Everybody Panic!”, “The Supreme Court Might Gut Obamacare. Your State Could Save It,” and “Obamacare vs. Supreme Court.” These titles to articles are misleading, at best, and factually incorrect, at worst. King v. Burwell is actually not an attack on the ACA. But I will explain later…

First of all, what the heck is certiorari…or “cert”, as many attorneys call it?

A writ of certiorari is actually an order from a higher court to a lower court demanding a record in a case so that the higher court may review the lower court’s decision. A writ of certiorari is the instrument most used by the Supreme Court to review cases. The Supreme Court hears such a small, minute fraction of lawsuits that when the Supreme Court “grants cert,” it is a big deal.

I have written in the past about these same two appellate court cases, which were both published July 22, 2014, within hours of one another, regarding the Health Care Premium Subsidies Section of the Affordable Care Act. These two cases yield polar opposite holdings. In Halbig v. Burwell, the D.C. Circuit Court found that the clear language of the ACA only allows the health care premium subsidies in states that created their own state-run health care exchanges, i.e, residents in NC along with 35 other states would not be eligible for the subsidies. See my blog: Halbig: Court Holds Clear Language of the ACA Prohibits Health Care Subsidies in Federally-Run Exchanges.

Juxtapose the 4th Circuit Court’s decision in King v. Burwell, which held that “For reasons explained below, we find that the applicable statutory language is ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations. Applying deference to the IRS’s determination, however, we uphold the rule as a permissible exercise of the agency’s discretion.”

So the two cases came to two entirely different conclusions. Halbig: ACA is clear; King: ACA is ambiguous.

Well, for everyone else, that is as clear….as mud.

When the D.C. court decided Halbig, it was not an en banc decision. In English, this means that the entire bench of judges in the D. C. Circuit did not hear the case, only a panel of three (which is the usual way for a case to be heard on appeal to a federal circuit). The Obama administration, along with other proponents of the ACA, hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would deny cert to King until the D.C. court could re-visit its decision, this time en banc.

Yet, this past Friday, the Supreme Court opted to consider King v. Burwell.

The sole issue to be decided is: Whether the Internal Revenue Service may permissibly promulgate regulations to extend tax-credit subsidies to coverage purchased through exchanges established by the federal government under Section 1321 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

How is King v. Burwell NOT an attack on the ACA?

The plaintiffs in King are not asking the Supreme Court to strike down the ACA, even, in part. They are asking the Court to uphold the plain language of the ACA by holding that the IRS’s interpretation of the ACA is erroneous. Let me explain…

Section 1311 directs states to establish exchanges, and Section 1321 directs the federal government to establish exchanges “within” any state that opts to not set up its own state-run exchange, e.g., NC.

Section 1401 authorizes subsidies for people whose household income falls between 100 and 400% of the federal poverty level, who are not eligible for qualified employer coverage or other government programs, and who enroll in coverage “through an Exchange established by the State.” (emphasis added). These 3 criteria are crystal clear based on the plain language of the statute.

The statute makes no provision for subsidies in states that opt not to create their own exchange but, instead, allow the federal government to create an exchange within its state.

The ACA was intended to create penalties if the states do not establish their own exchanges. For example, the subsidies are not allowed to citizens of states without state-created exchanges.

In August 2011, the IRS issued a proposed rule [add link] announcing it would provide tax credits (and implement the resulting penalties) in states with federal exchanges, too. IRS officials later admitted to Congress that they knew the statute did not authorize them to issue tax credits through federal exchanges…Oops…

The proposed rule received much negative feedback based on the fact that the IRS appeared to have no statutory basis for the rule. Nonetheless, the proposed rule was finalized in May 2012, and lawsuits ensued…

Oklahoma began the litigation with Pruitt v. Burwell in September 2012. In September 2014, a federal district court held that the plain language of the ACA does not allow subsidies in states with federally-run exchanges. In May 2013, Halbig v. Burwell was filed, and in September 2013, King v. Burwell was filed.

So, much to the contrary of popular belief, these lawsuits are not “against the ACA” or “proving the unconstitutionality of the ACA.” Instead, these lawsuits are “against” the IRS interpreting the ACA to allow tax credits for all states, even if the state has a federally-run exchange.

Will it negatively impact the ACA if the plaintiffs win? That would be a resounding yes.

Oral argument could be as soon as March 2015.

Obamacare, Health Care Exchanges, Subsidies, Typos, and Speak-o’s

Have you ever said something that you immediately wished you could put back in your mouth? I know I have! In fact, just recently, I was eating lunch with my husband and one of our closest friends Josh. Josh, his wife, Tracey, my husband Scott and I ride horses together almost every weekend. Our daughters come with us, and it’s a fun family event. So, I should have known that a manger is a tool used in barns to hold the hay for the horses to eat, not just baby Jesus’ bed.

Josh tells me that he is going to pick up a manger. To which I respond, “Josh, why do you need a baby manger?” If words came out of your mouth on a string, I would have grabbed that string and shoved it back into my mouth. Of course, my husband had no end to his ribbing. “Josh, why do they sell baby mangers in Tractor Supply?” And “Baby Jesus was so lucky that someone put a manger in that barn for when he was born.”

At that point, I would have liked to claim that I had a “speak-o.” You know, like a typo, but for speech.

At least this is what Jonathan Gruber has claimed…that he made a speak-o in 2012.

Jonathan Gruber is one of the architects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). He drafted much of the language included in the ACA. After the ACA was passed, Gruber was interviewed by a number of journalists regarding specific sections of the ACA. One of the sections on which he spoke was the section that allowed for health care premium subsidies for people enrolled in the program who reside in states which created state-run health care exchanges as opposed to states that opted to use the federal exchange. For ease of this blog, I will call this ACA section the “Health Care Premium Subsidies Section.”

As I am sure you are aware if you follow my blog, two appellate court cases came out July 22, 2014, regarding the Health Care Premium Subsidies Section, with polar opposite holdings. In Halbig v. Burwell, the D.C. Circuit Court found that the clear language of the ACA only allows the health care premium subsidies in states that created their own state-run health care exchanges, i.e, residents in NC along with 35 other states would not be eligible for the subsidies. See my blog: “Halbig: Court Holds Clear Language of the ACA Prohibits Health Care Subsidies in Federally-Run Exchanges.”

Juxtapose the 4th Circuit Court’s decision in King v. Burwell, which held that “For reasons explained below, we find that the applicable statutory language is ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations. Applying deference to the IRS’s determination, however, we uphold the rule as a permissible exercise of the agency’s discretion.”

The two cases were released within hours of each other and came to two entirely different conclusions. Halbig: ACA is clear; King: ACA is ambiguous.

Interesting to note is that D.C. is not a state, and the 4th Circuit clearly embraces five states.

In my Halbig blog, I explain the legal analysis of statutory interpretation. I also explain that based on my reading of the Health Care Premium Subsidies Section, I tend to side with the D.C. courts and opine that the Section is not ambiguous.

If, however, a court finds that the statutory language is ambiguous, the court defers to the agency’s interpretation “so long as it is based on a permissible construction of the statute,” which is clear case law found in the 4th Circuit.

Therefore, once the 4th Circuit determined that the statute is ambiguous, the court made the correct determination to defer to the IRS’ ruling that all states could benefit from the subsidies.

Yet another approach to statutory interpretation is considering the legislative intent. The courts may attempt to evaluate legislative intent when the statute is ambiguous. In order to discern legislative intent, courts may weigh proposed bills, records of hearing on the bill, amendments to the bill, speeches and floor debate, legislative subcommittee minutes, and/or published statements from the legislative body as to the intent of the statute.

Recently, some journalists have uncovered 2012 interviews with Gruber during which he states that the Health Care Premium Subsidies Section was drafted intentionally to induce the states to create their own health care subsidies and not rely on the federal exchange. How’s that for intent?

The exact language of that part of the 2012 interview is as follows:

Interviewer: “You mentioned the health information [sic] Exchanges for the states, and it is my understanding that if states don’t provide them, then the federal government will provide them for the states.”

Gruber: “I think what’s important to remember politically about this is if you’re a state and you don’t set up an Exchange, that means your citizens don’t get the tax credits… I hope that’s a blatant enough political reality that states will get their act together and realize there are billions of dollars at stake here in setting up these Exchanges, and that they’ll do it.”

What do you think? You think Gruber is pretty explicit as to legislative intent? Well, at least in 2012….

In 2014, Gruber states, as to his 2012 comment, “I honestly don’t remember why I said that. I was speaking off-the-cuff. It was just a mistake. People make mistakes. Congress made a mistake drafting the law and I made a mistake talking about it.”

According to Gruber, Congress made a typo; Gruber made a speak-o.

“It’s unambiguous that it’s a typo,” Gruber tells reporter Chris Matthews from NBC and MSNBC.

Um…a typo when the statement is spoken? Hence, the new word “speak-o” blowing up Twitter.

If Gruber’s statement was truly a speak-o, it was a re-occurring speak-o. Gruber also made two speeches in which he listed three possible threats to the implementation of Obamacare. In both cases the third “threat” was that states would not set up exchanges and, instead, would rely on the federal government.

I anticipate that Gruber’s 2012 and contrary 2014 statements will be at issue as these cases, Halbig and King, move forward.

As for me, I would like to invoke my own speak-o’s. I can only imagine how I will be received when I appear before a court and say, “Your Honor, I apologize. That was a speak-o.”