Category Archives: Sec. Kathleen Sebelius

Halbig: Court Holds Clear Language of the ACA Prohibits Health Care Subsidies in Federally-Run Exchanges

Remember my post, “The Great and Powerful ACA: Are High, Inflated Premiums Hiding Behind the Curtain?” I warned of the possible consequences of Halbig v. Burwell…and it happened.

Halbig v. Burwell was decided earlier today.

The Halbig court held that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) went too far in extending subsidies to those who buy insurance through the federally run, Healthcare.gov website.

The Halbig court ruled that the subsection of the ACA that allows high insurance premium tax credits, according to the plain language of the statute, only applies to those individuals enrolled “through an exchange established by the state.” (emphasis added). Therefore, if Halbig is upheld on en banc review by the D. C. Circuit (see below) or on appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court, residents who reside in two-thirds (or 36) of the states that did not establish state-run health care exchanges (including NC), will not benefit from the health care subsidies.

Looking at the decision through a purely objective, legal lens, I believe the federal court of appeals is correct in its ruling. I also agree that the ruling will have drastic and devastating consequences for the ACA and the people who would have benefited from the health care subsidies.

However, the law governing statutory construction and interpretation is clear. Statutory interpretation is the process by which courts interpret legislation.

For years, the U.S. Supreme Court has been explicit on statutory interpretation. “We begin with the familiar canon of statutory construction that the starting point for interpreting a statute is the language of the statute itself. Absent a clearly expressed legislative intention to the contrary, that language must ordinarily be regarded as conclusive.” Consumer Product Safety Commission et al. v. GTE Sylvania, Inc. et al., 447 U.S. 102 (1980).

In other words, if the words of a statute are unambiguous, then the statutory interpretation ends. The clear words of the statute must be followed.

Let me give an example of ambiguous language:

A magazine printed the following: “Rachel Ray enjoys cooking her family and her dogs.” If that were true, Rachel Ray’s family and dogs would be very upset. I am sure what the editor meant to write was “Rachel Ray enjoys cooking, her family, and her dogs.”

It is amazing how important a comma is.

The Halbig court held that the section of the ACA allowing health care subsidies only apply to those enrolled in an exchange established by the state is not ambivalent. Thus, according to statutory interpretation rules, the judicial inquiry ends.

So what happens now?

A request for an en banc ruling by the D. C. Circuit is the next step for Department of Justice. An en banc ruling is a decision made by all the justices, or the entire bench, of an appeals court, instead of a panel selected by the bench. In this case, three federal judges sat on the panel and the case was decided 2-1. An appeals court can only overrule a decision made by one of its panels if the court is sitting en banc.

Looking beyond any en banc ruling, the case could, potentially, be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, especially in light of the importance of the decision and the fact that a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the opposite way literally hours after Halbig was announced. See David King, et al. v. Burwell, et al.

The Fourth Circuit found the ACA ambiguous, and it states, “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. We thus affirm the judgment of the district court.”

Bizarre that two courts hold opposing positions on the same issue and publish both decisions on the same day.  It reminds of the old Sam the Sheepdog cartoon, “Duh! Which way did he go? Which way did he go, George?”

Finally, in closing, and on a personal note, I would like to dedicate this blog to my lab-doberman mix, Booker T, who, sadly, passed Sunday.  He was my best friend for over 14 years.  You will be greatly missed, Booker T.  Rest in peace.

Booker T

Sebelius Out, Burwell In: A New Secretary to Lead the Department of Health and Human Services (Federal)

The following article is breaking news on the Health Care Policy Report:

The Senate June 5 voted 78-17 to confirm Sylvia Mathews Burwell as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Republicans who voted against the nomination included Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who in an earlier floor statement compared voting for the nomination to appointing a “new captain for the Titanic.” Other Republicans who voted against the nomination included Roy Blunt (Mo.), Ted Cruz (Texas), John Cornyn (Texas), Pat Roberts (Kan.) and John Thune (S.D.).

In urging his colleagues to vote in favor of the nomination, Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said that Burwell enjoys bipartisan support and that Republicans and Democrats will need to work together to ensure the future of Medicare.

Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget, will replace Kathleen Sebelius, who announced her resignation in April but agreed to stay on until a successor is confirmed.
Burwell has sailed through Senate committee hearings and a committee vote, and easily passed a procedural vote June 4 when 14 Republicans voted with Democrats, 67-28, to end debate on the nomination.

Medicare Appeals to OMHA Reaches 15,000 Per Week, Yet Decisions Take Years; Hospital Association Sues Over Medicare Backlog

When you are a health care provider and make the business determination to accept Medicare or Medicaid, you are agreeing to deal with certain headaches.  Low reimbursement rates and more regulations than you can possibly count make accepting Medicare and Medicaid a daunting experience.  Throw in some pre- and post-payment review audits, some inept contractors, and dealing with the government, in general, and you have a trifecta of terrible to-dos.

But having to “pay back” (by reimbursement withholding) an alleged overpayment before an appeal decision is rendered is not a headache which hospitals have agreed to take, says the American Hospital Association.  And it said so very definitively, in the form of a Complaint in the U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia

In both Medicaid and Medicare audits, if you get audited and are told to pay back XX dollars, you have a right to appeal that determination.  Obviously, with Medicare, you appeal on the federal level and with Medicaid, you appeal to the state level.  But the two roads to appeal (the state and federal) are not identical.  Robert Frost once said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”  However,the Medicare appeal route is NOT the route less traveled by.

As of February 12, 2014, over 480,000 Medicare appeals were pending for assignment to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), with 15,000 new appeals filed each week.  In December 2013, HHS Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) announced a moratorium on assignment of provider appeals to ALJs for at least the next two years, and possibly longer.  The average wait-time for a hearing is approximately 24 months, but will undoubtedly increase quickly due to the moratorium.  A decision would not come until later.  And all the while the parties are waiting, the provider’s reimbursements will be withheld until the alleged overpayment amount is met.  Literally, a Medicare appeal could take 3-5 years.

The American Hospital Association is fed up. And who can blame them?  On May 22, 2014, the American Hospital Association (AHA) filed a Complaint in the United States District Court in the District of Columbia against Kathleen Selebius, in her official capacity as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), complaining that HHS is noncompliant with federal statutory law because of the Medicare appeal backlog.  I am not surprised by AHA’s Complaint; I am only surprised that it took this long for a lawsuit.  I am also surprised that more providers, other than hospitals, are not taking action.

AHA is requesting relief under the Mandamus Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1361.  The Mandamus Act allows a court to compel an officer or employee of the United States or any agency thereof to perform a duty owed.  In this case, the AHA is saying that HHS has a statutory duty to resolve Medicare appeals within 90 days.  So, AHA is asking the district court to compel HHS to resolve Medicare appeals by not later than the end of the 90-day period beginning on the date a request for hearing has been timely filed.

And, here, I am obliged to insert a quick, two thumbs-up for our very own Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH)  in NC for its handling of Medicaid appeals.  If you file a contested case at OAH, it will not take 3-5 years.

AHA’s lawsuit is significant because AHA does not restrict the relief requested to only hospital Medicare appeals.  AHA requests that the District Court “enter a declaratory judgment that HHS’s delay in adjudication of Medicare appeals violates federal law.”  If granted, I would assume that this declaratory judgment would impact all Medicare providers.  The only way to ensure all providers are covered by this decision is for all providers to either (1) file a separate action (to include damages, which is not included in AHA’s action for some reason); or (2) to join AHA’s action (and forego damages), but its impact will be broad.  I am not sure why AHA did not seek damages; the time value of money is a real damage…the non-ability for the hospitals to invest in more beds because their money is stuck at HHS is a real damage…the loss of the interest on the withheld money, which is obviously benefiting the feds, is a real damage.

AHA’s request is not dissimilar to an arrested individual’s right to a speedy trial.  During a criminal trial, the defendant remains incarcerated.  Therefore, because we believe our liberty is so important, the defendant has a right to a speedy trial.  That way, if he or she is innocent, the defendant would have spent the least number of days imprisoned.

With a Medicare audit appeal, HHS begins immediately withholding reimbursements until the alleged overpayment amount is met, even though through the appeal, that overpayment will most likely be decreased quite substantially.  Apparently, across the nation, the percent of overturned Medicare audits through appeal is around 72%,  but I could not find out whether the 72% represents ANY amount overturned or the entire 100% of the audit being overturned.  Because, in my personal experience, 99.9% of Medicare appeals have SOME reduction in the alleged amount (I would have said 100%, but we are taught not to use definitive remarks as attorneys).

Because the provider’s Medicare money is withheld based on an allegation of an overpayment, the fact that the cases are backlogged at the ALJ level is financially distressing for any provider.Even without the backlog, Medicare appeals take longer than Medicaid appeals.  In Medicare, there is four-step appeal process.  Going before the ALJ is the 3rd level.

First, a Medicare appeal begins with the Medicare Administrative Contractor (MAC) for redetermination.  The MAC must render a redetermination decision within sixty days.

If unsuccessful, a provider can appeal the MAC’s decision to a Qualified Independent Contractor (“QIC”) for reconsideration. QICs must render a decision within sixty days.

Provided that the amount in controversy is greater than $140 (for calendar year 2014), the next level, and where the backlog begins, is at the level of appeal to an ALJ. The ALJ is required both to hold a hearing and to render a decision within ninety days, which is not happening.

Hence, AHA’s lawsuit.  Hopefully AHA will be successful, because a backlog of Medicare appeals at the ALJ level doesn’t help anyone.  And audits are not going away.

Knock, Knock. Who’s There? Burwell. Burwell Who?

As I am sure most of you have heard, April 10, 2014, Kathleen Sebelius, former Secretary to Health and Human Services (HHS), resigned. Some journalists wrote that her resignation came 6 months after “the disastrous rollout of Obamacare,” obviously alluding that she was fleeing from her position as Secretary. But is that why Sebelius left? And who is Sylvia Mathews Burwell?

It is no secret that when Healthcare.gov went live on October 1, 2013, Sebelius called the roll-out a “debacle.” But recent figures show enrollment in Obamacare exchanges has surpassed 7.5 million.

Sunday Sebelius stated that “Clearly, the estimate that it was ready to go Oct. 1 was just flat-out wrong.”

According to Politico Pro, “a White House official said Sebelius told Obama in March that she planned to resign. She felt that the Affordable Care Act trajectory was back on track, and believed “that once open enrollment ended it would be the right time to transition the Department to new leadership.””

It seems that Sebelius did not want to resign during the height of the debacle. She waited until things smoothed out a bit before walking away.

Obama has chosen Sylvia Mathews Burwell, his budget Director, to replace Sebelius.

Who is Burwell?

Burwell

Burwell served as deputy White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration. She also served at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) twice, once as director. She has also worked at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Speaking of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and people with obscene amounts of money, why don’t people ever set up charities to pay for Medicaid recipients to receive private insurance with the co-pays all covered? If I ever get an obscene amount of money I would set up a Medicaid Foundation. The Emanuel Medicaid Foundation. Look for that in the VERY FAR future, folks.).

Going back to Burwell…she received her bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University. She also received her bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University. Seriously? Is that a quadruple major from 2 colleges?

Her grandparents were Greek immigrants, and she grew up in West Virginia.

There isn’t much more information on Burwell. She is relatively young (48) and holds a relatively small resume considering the enormous undertaking she is about to assume.

Obama nominated Burwell one day after Sebelius resigned. There is no indication of whether Burwell was Obama’s first choice. It took him one day to replace Sebelius, which is pretty amazing.  Remember, we still haven’t replaced former Medicaid Director, Carol Steckel. Sandy Terrell is still the “Acting Director.” Whew, it has got to be difficult to fill these intimidating positions.

I can only imagine how many people would NOT want to be Secretary of HHS. Talk about a big job! Talk about high stress!

Burwell has not been confirmed yet. Despite Burwell not being a common household name when Obama nominated her, it is without question that Burwell has now stepped into the limelight. If confirmed, Burwell will be one of the most powerful people in health care…and one of the most scrutinized.

Good luck, Burwell!! Make Burwell a household name…for good reasons. And when someone says, “Burwell who?”

Someone else will respond, “That is the Secretary for HHS.”

Congressman McDermott Calls on Sec. Sebelius to Fix the Medicare Appeal Purgatory

Throughout my career I have seen more people confuse Medicare and Medicaid than any other two items in my line of work.  If I am about to give a presentation on Medicaid, without question, someone will comment, “Oh, that’s important!  We will all be on Medicaid someday.”  Hmmmm? Really? (I hope not).

It’s confusing. I get it.  They sound the same and both are heavily regulated with esoteric rules and regulations.

For the record, MediCARE covers those who qualify for Medicare and are 65 years of age or older.  MediCAID serves low-income parents, children, seniors, and people with disabilities. 

By providers, I am asked frequently, “What is the difference between a Medicaid audit appeal and a Medicare audit appeal?”

The easy “Audit 101” answer  is that Medicaid audit appeals are quicker (although in the legal world, nothing is truly fast) than Medicare audits and that the Medicaid administrative appeal process is easier (or has fewer steps) than the Medicare appeal process.

In Medicaid you have an informal appeal, an appeal to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), and, if you are so inclined, judicial review to the Superior Courts.  Obviously you can appeal the judicial review, but most appeals stop at the OAH level.

So, with Medicaid audit appeals, you have 2 levels…maybe 3.

In Medicare audits appeals, there are 5 levels.  You have more of a Dante-ish order of events.

In the “Divine Comedy,” Dante writes of three levels of afterlife: (1) Inferno (2) Purgatorio; and (3) Paradiso.

If Dante stopped at those 3 levels, the “Divine Comedy” would be more similar to Medicaid audit appeals, not Medicare audit appeals.  But Dante does not stop at 3 levels.

Purgatory, which is the place that the human soul must purge its sins and climb up to be worthy of Heaven, is divided into three sections: (1) Antepurgatory; (2) Purgatory proper; and (3) the Earthly Paradise. (I am giving the Cliff’s Notes version for the purpose of this blog.  Obviously, there were other mountains symbolizing the 7 deadly sins and other layers, but I will leave that for English class).

In recent times, Purgatory has come to mean a state of suffering or torment that is meant to be temporary.

Regardless, the “Divine Comedy” and its multi-layers to achieve Paradiso is more akin to the Medicare appeal audit process.

Here are the levels in a Medicare audit appeal process:

1. Redetermination

2. Reconsideration

(Purgatory)

3. Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)

4. Review by the Appeals Council

5. Judicial Review

Nowadays many providers undergoing Medicare audits are getting stuck waiting for #3 to occur.  Purgatory.

So long is the hold up before step #3 that Congressman Jim McDermott, 7th District, Washington, wrote a letter to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius expressing concerns.

In a letter dated March 18, 2014, Congressman McDermott writes that he is concerned with the backlog of appeals pending in the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA).

According to Congressman McDermott, 357,000 Medicare appeals are pending at OMHA.  If OMHA decided to set a one-year deadline to hear the pending actions and not counting new actions that would be filed, OMHA would have to preside over 1,027.4 hearings a day, including weekends and holidays.

For as long as I know, OMHA has expedited Medicare recipients appeals.  However, while Congressman McDermott commends OMHA for the expeditions, he states that the expeditions are not fast enough, even for Medicare recipients.

Congressman McDermott makes several suggestions as to how to decrease the current workload on OMHA.

First, he asks that the “two midnights policy” not be implemented.  Instead, he suggests to revamp the recovery audit contractor (RAC) program.  Congressman McDermott states that too many issues are still not resolved for the Policy to be implemented and that the implementation will only add to OMHA’s workload.

Second, Congressman McDermott suggests more accountability for the RACs.  He states that there is no associated penalty if a RAC collects money from a provider and the decision is overturned on appeal.

To this suggestion, I say, “Bravo, Congressman McDermott!”  My suggestion is that the RACs to pay the provider’s attorneys’ fees if overturned on appeal.  It seems only fair that the provider not have to pay legal fees if the provider shows that the RAC was incorrect in its assessment.

Thirdly, Congressman McDermott suggests to ensure the newly instated pause  on document requests corrects the problems.  CMS has recognized inherent problems with the RAC program and has issued a pause of document requests.  Well, Congressman McDermott says make sure you fix the problem before lifting the pause.  Logical.

Without question, the backlog at OMHA needs to be addressed.  Some Medicare providers have complained of not having their cases heard for years.  Imagine waiting to be heard in front of a judge for years….not knowing…

It is hard enough for providers to go through a Medicare audit.  Much less appeal and then…………………………………………….wait in Purgatory.