Our newly appointed DHHS Secretary comes with a fancy and distinguished curriculum vitae. Dr. Mandy Cohen, DHHS’ newly appointed Secretary by Gov. Roy Cooper, is trained as an internal medicine physician. She is 38 (younger than I am) and has no known ties to North Carolina. She grew up in New York; her mother was a nurse practitioner. She is also a sharp contrast from our former, appointed, DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos. See blog.
Prior to the appointment as our DHHS Secretary, Dr. Cohen was the Chief Operating Officer and Chief of Staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Prior to acting as the COO of CMS, she was Principal Deputy Director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight (CCIIO) at CMS where she oversaw the Health Insurance Marketplace and private insurance market regulation. Prior to her work at CCIIO, she served as a Senior Advisor to the Administrator coordinating Affordable Care Act implementation activities.
Did she ever practice medicine?
Prior to acting as Senior Advisor to the Administrator, Dr. Cohen was the Director of Stakeholder Engagement for the CMS Innovation Center, where she investigated new payment and care delivery models.
Dr. Cohen received her Bachelor’s degree in policy analysis and management from Cornell University, 2000. She obtained her Master’s degree in health administration from Harvard University School of Public Health, 2004, and her Medical degree from Yale University School of Medicine, 2005.
She started as a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital from 2005 through 2008, then was deputy director for comprehensive women’s health services at the Department of Veterans Affairs from July 2008 through July 2009. From 2009 through 2011, she was executive director of the Doctors for America, a group that promoted the idea that any federal health reform proposal ought to include a government-run “public option” health insurance program for the uninsured.
Again, I was perplexed. Did she ever practice medicine? Does she even have a current medical license?
This is what I found:
It appears that Dr. Cohen was issued a medical license in 2007, but allowed it to expire in 2012 – most likely, because she was no longer providing medical services and was climbing the regulatory and political ladder.
From what I could find, Dr. Cohen practiced medicine (with a fully-certified license) from June 20, 2007, through July 2009 (assuming that she practiced medicine while acting as the deputy director for comprehensive women’s health services at the Department of Veterans Affairs).
Let me be crystal clear: It is not my contention that Dr. Cohen is not qualified to act as our Secretary to DHHS because she seemingly only practiced medicine (fully-licensed) for two years. Her political and policy experience is impressive. I am only saying that, to the extent that Dr. Cohen is being touted as a perfect fit for our new Secretary because of her medical experience, let’s not make much ado of her practicing medicine for two years.
That said, regardless Dr. Cohen’s practical medical experience, anyone who has been the COO of CMS must have intricate knowledge of Medicare and Medicaid and the essential understanding of the relationship between NC DHHS and the federal government. In this regard, Cooper hit a homerun with this appointment.
Herein lies the conundrum with Dr. Cohen’s appointment as DHHS Secretary:
Is there a conflict of interest?
During Cooper’s first week in office, our new Governor sought permission, unilaterally, from the federal government to expand Medicaid as outlined in the Affordable Care Act. This was on January 6, 2017.
To which agency does Gov. Cooper’s request to expand Medicaid go? Answer: CMS. Who was the COO of CMS on January 6, 2017? Answer: Cohen. When did Cohen resign from CMS? January 12, 2017.
On January 14, 2017, a federal judge stayed any action to expand Medicaid pending a determination of Cooper’s legal authority to do so. But Gov. Cooper had already announced his appointment of Dr. Cohen as Secretary of DHHS, who is and has been a strong proponent of the ACA. You can read one of Dr. Cohen’s statements on the ACA here.
In fact, regardless your political stance on Medicaid expansion, Gov. Cooper’s unilateral request to expand Medicaid without the General Assembly is a violation of NC S.L. 2013-5, which states:
SECTION 3. The State will not expand the State’s Medicaid eligibility under the Medicaid expansion provided in the Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148, as amended, for which the enforcement was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in National Federation of Independent Business, et al. v. Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al., 132 S. Ct. 2566 (2012). No department, agency, or institution of this State shall attempt to expand the Medicaid eligibility standards provided in S.L. 2011-145, as amended, or elsewhere in State law, unless directed to do so by the General Assembly.
Obviously, if Gov. Cooper’s tactic were to somehow circumvent S.L. 2013-5 and reach CMS before January 20, 2017, when the Trump administration took over, the federal judge blockaded that from happening with its stay on January 14, 2017.
But is it a bit sticky that Gov. Cooper appointed the COO of CMS, while she was still COO of CMS, to act as our Secretary of DHHS, and requested CMS for Medicaid expansion (in violation of NC law) while Cohen was acting COO?
You tell me.
I did find an uplifting quotation from Dr. Cohen from a 2009 interview with a National Journal reporter:
“There’s a lot of uncompensated work going on, so there has to be a component that goes beyond just fee-for service… But you don’t want a situation where doctors have to be the one to take on all the risk of taking care of a patient. Asking someone to take on financial risk in a small practice is very concerning.” -Dr. Mandy Cohen
Come one! Come all! Step right up to be one of the first 6 states to test the new Medicare-Medicaid Affordable Care Act (ACO) pilot program.
Let your elderly population be the guinea pigs for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Let your most needy population be the lab rats for CMS.
On December 15, 2016, CMS announced its intent to create Medicare/caid ACOs. Currently, Medicare ACOs exist, and if your physician has opted to participate in a Medicare ACO, then, most likely, you understand Medicare ACOs. Medicare ACOs are basically groups of physicians – of different service types – who voluntarily decide (but only after intense scrutiny by their lawyers of the ACO contract) to collaborate care with the intent of higher quality and lower cost care. For example, if your primary care physician participates in a Medicare ACO and you suffer intestinal issues, your primary care doctor would coordinate with a GI specialist within the Medicare ACO to get you an appointment. Then the GI specialist and your physician would share medical records, including test results and medication management. The thought is that the coordination of care will decrease duplicative tests, ensure appointments are made and kept, and prevent losing medical records or reviewing older, moot records.
Importantly, the Medicare beneficiary retains all benefits of “normal” Medicare and can choose to see any physician who accepts Medicare. The ACO model is a shift from “fee-for-service” to a risk-based, capitated amount in which quality of care is rewarded.
On the federal level, there have not been ACOs specially created for dual-eligible recipients; i.e., those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid…until now.
The CMS is requesting states to volunteer to participate in a pilot program instituting Medicare/Medicaid ACOs. CMS is looking for 6 brave states to participate. States may choose from three options for when the first 12-month performance period for the Medicare-Medicaid ACO Model will begin for ACOs in the state: January 1, 2018; January 1, 2019; or January 1, 2020.
Any state is eligible to apply, including the District of Columbia. But if the state wants to participate in the first round of pilot programs, intended to begin 2018, then that state must submit its letter of intent to participate by tomorrow by 11:59pm. See below.
I tried to research which states have applied, but was unsuccessful. If anyone has the information, I would appreciate it if you could forward it to me.
Participating in an ACO, whether it is only Medicare and Medicare/caid, can create a increase in revenue for your practices. Since you bear some risk, you also reap some benefit if you able to control costs. But, the decision to participate in an ACO should not be taken lightly. Federal law yields harsh penalties for violations of Anti-Kickback and Stark laws (which, on a very general level, prohibits referrals among physicians for any benefit). However, there are safe harbor laws and regulations specific to ACOs that allow exceptions. Regardless, do not ever sign a contract to participate in an ACO without an attorney reviewing it.
Food for thought – CMS’ Medicare/caid ACO Model may exist only “here in this [Obama] world. Here may be the last ever to be seen of [healthcare.gov] and their [employee mandates]. Look for it only in [history] books, for it may be no more than a [Obamacare] remembered, a [health care policy] gone with the wind…”
As, tomorrow (January 20, 2017) is the presidential inauguration. The winds may be a’changing…
Disclosure: This is the opinion/facts from the Kaiser Family Foundation, not me. But I found this interesting. My opinion will be forthcoming.
Kaiser Family Foundation article:
Medicaid covers about 73 million people nationwide. Jointly financed by the federal and state governments, states have substantial flexibility to administer the program under existing law. Medicaid provides health insurance for low-income children and adults, financing for the safety net, and is the largest payer for long-term care services in the community and nursing homes for seniors and people with disabilities. President-elect Trump supports repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and a Medicaid block grant. The GOP plan would allow states to choose between block grant and a per capita cap financing for Medicaid. The new Administration could also make changes to Medicaid without new legislation.
1. HOW WOULD ACA REPEAL AFFECT MEDICAID?
A repeal of the ACA’s coverage expansion provisions would remove the new eligibility pathway created for adults, increase the number of uninsured and reduce the amount of federal Medicaid funds available to states. The Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling on the ACA effectively made the Medicaid expansion optional for states. As of November 2016, 32 states (including the District of Columbia) are implementing the expansion. The full implications of repeal will depend on whether the ACA is repealed in whole or in part, whether there is an alternative to the ACA put in place and what other simultaneous changes to Medicaid occur. However, examining the effects of the ACA on Medicaid provide insight into what might be at stake under a repeal.
What happened to coverage? The ACA expanded Medicaid eligibility to nearly all non-elderly adults with income at or below 138% of the federal poverty level (FPL) – about $16,396 per year for an individual in 2016. Since summer of 2013, just before implementation of the ACA expansions, through August 2016 about 16 million people have been added to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. While not all of this increase is due to those made newly eligible under the ACA, expansion states account for a much greater share of growth. States that expanded Medicaid have had large gains in coverage, although ACA related enrollment has tapered. From 2013 to 2016 the rate of uninsured non-elderly adults fell by 9.2% in expansion states compared to 6% in non-expansion states.
What happened to financing? The law provided for 100% federal funding of the expansion through 2016, declining gradually to 90% in 2020 and beyond. Expansion states have experienced large increases in federal dollars for Medicaid and have claimed $79 billion in federal dollars for the new expansion group from January 2014 through June 2015. Studies also show that states expanding Medicaid under the ACA have realized net fiscal gains despite Medicaid enrollment growth initially exceeding projections in many states.
What other Medicaid provisions were in the ACA? The ACA required states to implement major transformations to modernize and streamline eligibility and enrollment processes and systems. The ACA also included an array of new opportunities related to delivery system reforms for complex populations, those dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid and new options to expand community-based long-term care services.
2. WHAT WOULD CHANGES IN THE FINANCING STRUCTURE MEAN FOR MEDICAID?
A Medicaid block grant or per capita cap policy would fundamentally change the current structure of the program. These policies are typically designed to reduce federal spending and fix rates of growth to make federal spending more predictable, but could eliminate the guarantee of coverage for all who are eligible and the guarantee to states for matching funds. States would gain additional flexibility to administer their programs but reduced federal funding could shift costs and risk to beneficiaries, states, and providers.
How would it work? Block grants or per capita caps could be structured in multiple ways. Key policy decisions would determine levels of federal financing as well as federal and state requirements around eligibility, benefits, state matching requirements, and beneficiary protections. Previous block grant proposals have determined a base year financing amount for each state and then specified a fixed rate of growth for federal spending. Under a Medicaid per capita cap, the federal government would set a limit on how much to reimburse states per enrollee. Payments to states would be based on per enrollee spending multiplied by enrollees. Spending under per capita cap proposals fluctuate based on changes in enrollment, but would not account for changes in the costs per enrollee beyond the growth limit. To achieve federal savings, the per capita growth amounts would be set below the projected rates of growth under current law.
What are the key policy questions? Key questions in designing these proposals include: what new flexibility would be granted to states, what federal requirements would remain in place, what requirements would be in place for state matching funds, what is the base year and growth rates, and how would a potential repeal of the ACA work with a block grant proposal? Given the lack of recent administrative data, setting a base year could be challenging. These financing designs could lock in historic spending patterns and variation in Medicaid spending across states, resulting in states deemed “winners” or “losers.”
What are the implications? Capping and reducing federal financing for Medicaid could have implications for beneficiaries, states, and providers including: declines in Medicaid coverage or new financial barriers to care; limited funding for children (the majority of Medicaid enrollees) as well as the elderly and those with disabilities (populations that represent the majority of Medicaid spending); reduced funding for nursing homes and community-based long-term care (Medicaid is the largest payer of these services); reductions in federal revenues to states and Medicaid revenues for safety-net providers. A block grant would not adjust to increased coverage needs during a recession. Block grants or per capita caps would not adjust to changes in health care or drug costs or emergencies. Recently Medicaid costs have increased due to high cost specialty drugs and Medicaid has been used to help combat the growing opioid crisis.
3. HOW COULD MEDICAID BE CHANGED THROUGH ADMINISTRATIVE ACTIONS?
The Administration could make changes to Medicaid without changes in legislation.
How can changes be made through guidance? A new administration can reinterpret existing laws through new regulations and new sub-regulatory guidance. While there are rules that govern how to change regulations, a new administration has more flexibility to issue or amend sub-regulatory guidance, such as state Medicaid director letters. Rules promulgated by the Obama administration could be rolled back or changed.
How can changes be made through waivers? Throughout the history of the Medicaid program, Section 1115 waivers have provided states an avenue to test and implement demonstrations that, in the view of the Health and Human Services Secretary, advance program objectives but do not meet federal program rules. Longstanding federal policy has required waivers to be budget neutral for the federal government.
What kind of waivers may be considered? Seven states are using waivers to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion, including Indiana. The Indiana waiver, implemented under then Governor Pence, includes provisions to impose: premiums on most Medicaid beneficiaries; a coverage lock-out period for individuals with incomes above the poverty level who fail to pay premiums; health savings accounts; and healthy behavior incentives. The Obama administration has not approved waivers that would require work as a condition of Medicaid eligibility. It also has denied Ohio’s waiver request to impose premiums regardless of income and exclude individuals from coverage until all arrears are paid on the basis that this would restrict or undermine coverage from existing levels. Many other states are using waivers to implement payment and delivery system reforms. The incoming administration could decide whether or not to renew existing waivers and can approve a new set of waivers to promote its own program goals.
On May 18, 2016, the US Department of Labor (DOL) announced the Final Rule amending the “white collar” overtime exemptions to increase the number of employees eligible for overtime, effective December 1, 2016. Got overtime? There is no phase-in; it is immediately effective on December 1st.
We all know that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) placed heavier burdens on employers with the employer mandate for employee health insurance. But, the burdens didn’t stop with the ACA!! Oh, no! In 2014, President Obama signed an Executive Order directing the Department of Labor to update the regulations defining which white collar workers are protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime standards. How else could we financially burden employers? We could mandate employers pay overtime to salaried workers!!! Oh, we already do? Let’s raise the overtime salary threshold exemptions so more employees receive overtime!!
You ask, “How is the DOL Final Rule on white collar exemptions germane to my health care agency/practice?” Answer: Do you have employees? If yes, the Final Rule is applicable to you. If no, there is no need to read this blog (unless you are a salaried employee and want to receive more overtime).
The new, increased salary threshold for executives, administration, and professionals exemptions swells from $455/week to $913/week or $23,660/year to $47,476/year. The number for the ceiling is actually less than what was proposed by $800/week. These numbers are based on 40th percentile of full-time employees (salaried) in the lowest wage region, which happens to be the South. Don’t get your knickers in a knot.
Furthermore, the exemption for the highly compensated employee will jump from $100,000 to $134,004 (odd number). This number is $12,000 more than the proposed amount. Well, that just dills my pickle!
The Final Rule also requires that the salary threshold for executives, administration, and professionals be reviewed every three years in order to maintain the salary exemption comparable to the 40th percentile of full-time employees (salaried) in the lowest wage census region – the South.
Finally, the salary basis test will be amended to allow employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions, to satisfy the requirements up to 10% of the salary threshold.
The allowance of non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments was meant to soften the blow of the increased salary thresholds. That’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine/a trapdoor on a canoe.
VERY IMPORTANT EXCEPTION
The Secretary of DOL issued a time-limited non-enforcement policy for providers of Medicaid-funded services for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities in residential homes and facilities with 15 or fewer beds. From December 1, 2016 to March 17, 2019, the Department will not enforce the updated salary thresholds.
BUT THE REST OF US BEWARE!!
Do your math!! If the 10% maximum allowance is exceeded, you could find yourself in a world of hurt! We are talking misclassification claims! Also, ensure you know the proper distinctions between discretionary and non-discretionary bonuses!
What likely consequences will arise from this Final Rule? There are a number of possibilities:
- Employers will raise employees’ salaries to the new levels;
- Employers will pay more overtime;
- Employers will convert the salaried employees to hourly;
- Employers will change benefits or other operation costs to compensate for the increased burden.
Well, that’s just lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut!
Throughout the history of health care, payors and payees of Medicare/caid have existed in separate silos. In fact, the two have combated – the relationship has not always been stellar.
Looking into my crystal ball; however, all will not be as it is now [that’s clear as mud!].
Now, and in the upcoming years, there will be a massive shift to integrate payors and payees under the same roof. Competition drives this movement. So does the uncertainty in the health care market. This means that under one umbrella may be the providers and the paying entities.
Why is this a concern? First – Any healthcare entity that submits claims to the federal government, whether it be a provider or payor, must comply with the fraud and abuse statutes. As such, there is a potential to run afoul of federal and state regulations regulating the business of health care. Payors know their rules; providers know their rules…And those rules are dissimilar; and, at times, conflicting. The opportunity to screw up is endemic.
Second – With the new responsibilities mandated by the Yates Memo, these new relationships could create awkward situations in which the head of the payor department could have knowledge (or should have knowledge) of an [alleged] overpayment, but because of the politics at the company or self-interest in the preservation of his or her career, the head may not want to disclose such overpayment. With the 60-day rule, the head’s hesitation could cost the company.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) reinvented health care in so many ways. Remember, the ACA is supposed to be self-funding. Taxes were not to increase due to its inception. Instead, health care providers fund the ACA through post payment and prepayment audits, ZPIC audits, CERTs, MFCU, MICs, RACs, and PERMs.
The ACA also made a whole new commercially-insured population subject to the False Claims Act. False statements are now being investigated in connection with Medical Loss Ratios, justifications for rate increases, risk corridor calculations, or risk adjustment submissions.
CMS imposes a duty to detect fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA). But what if you’re looking at your own partners?
The chart above depicts “old school” Medicare payment options for physicians and other health care providers. In our Brave New World, the arrows will be criss-crossed (applesauce), because when the payors and the payees merge, the reimbursements, the billing, and the regulatory supervision will be underneath the same roof. It’ll be the game of “chicken” taken to a whole new level…with prison and financial penalties for the loser.
Since 2011, kickback issues have exponentially grown. The Anti-Kickback Statute makes it a criminal offense for a provider to give “remuneration” to a physician in order to compensate the physician for past referrals or to induce future referrals of patients to the provider for items or services that are reimbursed, in whole or in part, by Medicare or Medicaid.
Imagine when payors and payees are owned by the same entity! Plus, the ACA amended the kickback statutes to eliminate the prong requiring actual knowledge or intent. Now you can be convicted of anti kickback issues without any actual knowledge it was ever occurring!!
Now we have the “one purpose test,” which holds that a payment or offer of remuneration violates the Anti-Kickback Statute so long as part of the purpose of a payment to a physician or other referral source by a provider or supplier is an inducement for past or future referrals. United States v. Borrasi, 2011 WL 1663373 (7th Cir. May 4, 2011).
There are statutory exceptions. But these exceptions differ depending on whether you are a payor or payee – see the potential criss-cross applesauce?
And, BTW, which types of health care services are bound by the anti kickback statutes?
- Clinical laboratory services;
- Physical therapy services;
- Occupation therapy services;
- Radiology services (including MRIs, Ultrasounds, and CAT scans);
- Radiation therapy and supplies;
- Durable medical equipment and supplies;
- Parenteral and enteral nutrients, equipment, and supplies;
- Prosthetics, orthotics, and prosthetic devices and supplies;
- Home health services;
- Outpatient prescription drugs; and
- Inpatient and outpatient hospital services.
Imagine a building. Inside is a primary care physician (PCP), a pediatrician, a home health agency, and a psychiatrist. Can the PCP refer to the home health agency? Can a hospital refer to a home care agency? What if one of the Board of Directors sit on both entities?
The keys to avoiding the anti kickback pitfalls is threefold: (1) fair market value (FMV); (2) arm’s length transactions; and (3) money cannot be germane to referrals.
However, there is no one acceptable way to determine FMV. Hire an objective appraiser. While hiring an objective appraiser does not establish accuracy, it can demonstrate a good faith attempt.
Number One Rule for Merging/Acquiring/Creating New Partnerships in our new Brave New World of health care?
Your attorney should be your new BFF!! (Unless she already is).
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).
“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.”
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.