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Low Medicaid Reimbursement Rates Violate the Supremacy Clause?! …The Supreme Court to Weigh In!

Tomorrow is a big day.  Not only will most of us return to work after a long weekend, but the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on a very important issue.

On January 20, 2015, (tomorrow) the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments on a very important issue that will affect every health care provider in America who accepts Medicaid, and, yet, there has been very little media coverage over this lawsuit.

Legal Issue: Does a Medicaid provider have a private right of action under the Medicaid Act to bring a lawsuit against states under the Supremacy clause.

The Issue Translated from Legalese to English: Can a Medicaid provider sue the state in which the provider does business if the provider believes that the Medicaid reimbursement rate for a particular service or product is too low? For example, can a dentist sue NC for a higher Medicaid reimbursement rate for tooth extractions? Can a long-term care facility and/or a home care agency sue due to low Medicaid personal care services (PCS) rates?

It is my opinion that Medicaid providers across the country have not brought enough lawsuits demanding higher Medicaid reimbursement rates. It is without question that Medicaid reimbursement rates across the country are too low. Low reimbursement rates cause health care providers to refuse to accept Medicaid recipients. See my blog NC Health Care Providers Who Accept Medicaid: Thank you!.

If you hold a Medicaid card, you do not automatically have access to good quality health care. You are segregated from the privately insured and the care you receive is not equal. You are limited in your choice of doctors. If you are an adult, you can forget any dental procedures. Even if you aren’t an adult, you require prior approval for almost all services (regardless of whether you are suffering from pain), which will often be denied (or reduced…or require a significant waiting period). You want mental health care? You better get the very least amount of help possible until you prove you need more help. See my blog NC Medicaid Expansion: Bad for the Poor.

And why won’t more health care providers accept Medicaid? The Medicaid reimbursement rates are too low!! The Medicaid reimbursement rates are too low for health care providers to yield a profit…or, in many instances, even cover the overhead. In fact, providers tell me that when they do accept Medicaid, they are forced to accept more privately insured patients to offset the losses from accepting the finite number of Medicaid patients. In many states, the states refuse to cover psychology costs for Medicaid recipients, and other states refuse to cover the costs for PCS.

So, I say, bring on the lawsuits!!! Force states to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates!!

For example, in obstetrics, if the national Medicaid reimbursement rate for ob/gyn visits is $1.00, here, in NC, we reimburse ob/gyns 88¢. Which is why only 34% of North Carolina ob/gyns accept Medicaid.  See Kaiser.

So far, across the country, federal courts have held that Medicaid providers do have a private right of action to sue states for low reimbursement rates. In fact, in most cases, the providers have PREVAILED and the states have been forced to pay higher rates!!!

Providers of all types have filed lawsuits across the country disputing the states’ Medicaid reimbursement rates as being too low. For example, in California, between April 2008 and April 2009, five lawsuits were filed against the state of California to stop scheduled reductions in reimbursement rates (on behalf of rehabilitation providers, nonemergency medical transportation providers, pharmacies, physicians, and emergency physicians).

A Florida lawsuit that was settled in December 2014 revolved around a young boy on Medicaid who was suffering from a painful sinus infection. His mother contacted multiple physicians and was denied appointments because the mother and her son were on Medicaid. He was forced to wait almost a week for an appointment. The judge in the case wrote, “I conclude that Florida’s Medicaid program has not compensated primary physicians or specialists at a competitive rate as compared with either that of Medicare or private insurance payers….I further conclude that Florida’s structure for setting physician reimbursement fails to account for statutorily mandated factors in the Medicaid Act, including the level of compensation needed to assure an adequate supply of physicians.”

Over the years, the Supreme Court has vacillated over even determining whether a Medicaid provider has a private right of action under the Medicaid Act to bring a lawsuit against states under the Supremacy clause.

In 2002, the Supreme Court denied certiorari (refused to hear the argument) on this very issue. Coming out of the 9th Circuit (which includes California), a Circuit which has been especially busy with lawsuits arguing Medicaid reimbursement rates are too low, the case of Independent Living Center of California v. Shewry would have squarely addressed this issue. But the Supreme Court denied certiorari and did not hear arguments.

In 2012, the Supreme Court decided to hear arguments on this issue. In Douglas v. Independent Living Center, Medicaid beneficiaries and providers sued the California state Medicaid agency, seeking to enjoin a number of proposed provider payment rate cuts. After the Supreme Court heard oral argument, but before it had issued its decision, the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) approved California’s state plan amendment containing the rate cuts. Consequently, the Douglas majority held that the case should be sent back to the lower courts to consider the effect of CMS’s approval of the state plan amendment, without deciding whether the beneficiaries and providers had a right to sue.

Now the case Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center will be heard by the Supreme Court on January 20, 2015.

How did this case come about?

In 2005, the Idaho state legislature passed a law requiring the state Medicaid agency to implement a new methodology to determine provider reimbursement rates, and in 2009, the state Medicaid agency published new, higher rates based, in part, on a study of provider costs. CMS approved the state’s new methodology. However, the new rates never were implemented because the state legislature failed to appropriate sufficient funding, making the refusal to increase the reimbursment rate a budgetary issue.  A group of Idaho residential habilitation providers that accept Medicaid sued the Idaho state Medicaid agency and alleged that the state’s failure to implement the new rates conflicted with federal law (the Supremacy Clause).

Section (30)(A) of the Medicaid Act requires state Medicaid agencies to take provider costs into account when setting reimbursement rates. Under case law precedent, the rate must “bear a reasonable relationship to efficient and economical . . . costs of providing quality services.” To deviate from this standard of reasonableness, a state must justify its decisions with more than budgetary reasons.

The argument is that the state’s low reimbursement rate for X service, is too low to provide good quality services and that the low rates were set for purely budgetary reasons.

Once you prove that the reimbursement rates are too low to expect good quality care (which would be fairly easy for almost all Medicaid services in NC), then you argue that the state’s reimbursement rates violate the Supremacy Clause because the federal law requires good quality care.

What is the Supremacy Clause?

The Supremacy Clause can be found in Article VI, Paragraph 2 of the U. S. Constitution. Basically, it establishes that federal law trumps conflicting state laws , even state constitutional provisions, on matters within the Constitution’s grant of powers to the federal government – such as Medicaid..

In this case, we are talking about a state’s Medicaid reimbursement rate violating the federal law requiring that the rate must bear a reasonable relationship to quality of care.

This is not a small matter.

After all is said and done, the Armstrong case, which will be heard by the Supreme Court tomorrow, will be extraordinarily important for Medicaid health care providers. I believe it is obvious which way I hope the Supreme Court decides…in favor of providers!! In favor of a ruling that states are not allowed to underpay health care providers only because the patient holds a Medicaid card.

My wish is that Medicaid providers across the country bring lawsuits against their state to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates…that the providers prevail…that more health care providers accept Medicaid…and that more Medicaid recipients receive quality health care.

Is that too much to ask?

The Supreme Court will most likely publish its opinion this summer.

Its decision could have an extreme impact on both Medicaid providers and recipients.  Higher Medicaid reimbursement rates would increase the number of physicians willing to accept Mediaid, which, in turn, would provide more access to care for Medicaid recipients.

Keep in mind, however, the issue before the Supreme Court in Armstrong is narrow.  If, for whatever reason, the Supreme Court decides that Medicaid providers do not have a private right to sue under the Supremacy Clause…all is not lost!!! There is more than one way to skin a cat.

PCS Medicaid Reimbursement Rates Are TOO LOW to Maintain Adequate Quality of Care, in Violation of the Code of Federal Regulations!

I recently spoke at the Association for Hospice and Home Care (AHHC) and the NC Association for Long Term Care Facilities (NCLTCF) conferences. At issue at both conferences was the reimbursement rate for personal care services (PCS), which is extremely important to both home health agencies (HHAs) and long-term care facilities (LTCFs).

Both AHHC and NCLTCF, as associations, are vital to the HHAs and LTCFs across the state. Associations provide a network of peers, up-to-date information, and lobbying efforts. The old saying, “United we stand, divided we fall,” comes to mind.

The saying, “United we stand, divided we fall,” was originally coined by Aesop, one of my favorite storytellers of all time, in the story “The Four Oxen and the Lion,” which goes like this:

“A lion used to prowl about a field in which four oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.”

UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FALL.”

I think “The Four Oxen and the Lion” is indicative as to the importance of an association, generally. An association is truly essential when it comes to lobbying. There are two times during which we have a potential impact as to the wording of statutes: (1) During the forefront, by lobbying efforts; and (2) At the backend, through litigation. Obviously, if the forefront is successful, then there becomes no need for the backend.

Much to my chagrin, in my explanation above, I am the “backend.” Hmmmm.

Because I am a litigator and not a lobbyist, I am only called upon if the forefront fails.

In the last session, the General Assembly enacted Session Law 2014-100, which reduced the Medicaid reimbursement rates for all services by 3%.

“SECTION 12H.18.(b). During the 2013-2015 fiscal biennium, the Department of Health and Human Services shall withhold reduce by three percent (3%) of the payments … on or after January 1, 2014” (emphasis added).”

The PCS reimbursement rate became $13.88. Session Law 2014-100 was signed into law August 7, 2014; however, Session Law 2014-100 purports to be effective retroactively as of October 2013. (This brings into question these possible recoupments for services already rendered, which, in my opinion, would violate federal and state law, but such possible violations (or probable or currently occurring violations are a topic for another blog).

It is without question that the Medicaid reimbursement rate for PCS is too low. In NC, the PCS reimbursement rate is currently set at $13.88/hour (or $3.47/15 minutes). It is also without question that there is a direct correlation between reimbursement rates and quality of care.

Because Medicaid pays for approximately 67% of all nursing home residents and recipients of home health care in USA, the Medicaid reimbursement rates and methods are central to understanding the quality of care received by PCS services and the level of staffing criteria expected.

PCS for adults are not a required Medicaid service. As in, a state may opt to provide PCS services or not. As of 2012, 31 states/provinces provided PCS services for adults and 25 did not. Most notably, Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina did not provide PCS services for adults. See Kaiser Family Foundation website.

According to Kaiser Family Foundation, “For the personal care services state plan option, the average rate paid to provider agencies [across the nation] was $18.19 per hour in 2012, a slight increase from $17.91 per hour in 2011. In states where personal care services providers were paid directly by the state or where reimbursement rates were determined by the state, the average reimbursement rate was $16.31 per hour in 2012. Medicaid provider reimbursement rates are often set by state legislatures as part of the budget process.”

See the below chart for a state by state comparison:

PCS across country 1

PCS country 2

Why should we care about the Medicaid PCS reimbursement rates?

1. Low reimbursement rates directly, and negatively, impact quality of care.
2. The aides who provide the PCS services, whether in someone’s home or at a LTCF, are often, him or herself on Medicaid.
3. It is in our best interest as a public for home health care agencies and LTCF to continue to accept Medicaid recipients.
4. It is in our best interest as a public for home health agencies and LTCF to stay in business.

#1: Low reimbursement rates directly, and negatively, impact quality of care.

42 U.S.C.A §1396a requires that a state provide Medicaid reimbursement rates at a level 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 an article entitled “Nurse Staffing Levels and Medicaid Reimbursement Rates in Nursing Facilities,” written by Charlene Harrington, James H Swan, and Helen Carrillo, the authors found that the Medicaid nursing home reimbursement rates were linked to quality of care, as to both RN hours and total nursing hours.

“Resident case mix was a positive predictor of RN hours and a negative predictor of total nursing hours. Higher state minimum RN staffing standards was a positive predictor of RN and total nursing hours while for-profit facilities and the percent of Medicaid residents were negative predictors.”

Numerous other articles have been published in the last few years that cite the direct correlation between reimbursement rates and quality of care.

The argument can be made that $13.88 is too low a reimbursement rate to ensure adequate quality of care. However, again, because this rate was not prevented at the forefront, it would entail a “backend” act of litigation to adjust the current reimbursement rate. (It is important to note that beginning next year, there will be an additional reduction of rate by another 1%).

#2: The aides who provide the PCS services, whether in someone’s home or at a LTCF, is often, him or herself on Medicaid.

According to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, an advocacy group for home care workers, 1 in 4 home health workers has a household income below the federal poverty line and more than 1 in 3 do not have health insurance.

Think about this…home care workers provide PCS to the elderly, disabled, and needy, many of which are on Medicaid and Medicare. Home care workers work full-time changing diapers, assisting with ambulation, dressing, and grooming for the elderly, yet 1 in 4 home care workers are eligible for Medicaid themselves.

Currently, federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour. 18 states have minimum wage equal to the federal minimum wage, including North Carolina. 23 states set minimum wage higher than the federal level. Washington D.C. pays the highest minimum wage at $9.50/hour.

PCS reimbursement rates in NC are $3.47/15 minutes, or $13.88/hour. $13.88 is above the federal and NC minimum wage of $7.25. However, just because the PCS reimbursement rate is $13.88/hour does not mean that the PCS workers are receiving $13.88/hour. The owners of HHAs and LTCFs pay their workers much less than $13.88/hour; they have overhead, insurance, taxes, salaries, etc. to pay…not to mention a percentage of the $13.88/hour needs to be allocated to profit (albeit, however, small).

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013, the average PCS worker’s salary in NC is $19,392/year, or $1,660/month. Working 40 hours a week, a salary of $17,280 equates to approximately $10.10/hour. Obviously, $10.10 is well-above our $7.25 minimum wage, although difficult to make ends meet.

The average fast food worker’s hourly wage is $7.73.

In order for an increase of hourly pay, of any amount, for home health workers, the Medicaid PCS reimbursement rate would need to be increased.

With the current PCS rate at $13.88/hour, home health workers are getting paid between $8.00-11.00/hour. In order for PCS workers to receive $15.00/hour, the PCS rate would need to be increased by $2.00-5.00/hour.

#3: It is in our best interest as a public for HHAs and LTCFs to continue to accept Medicaid recipients.

What if HHA and LTCF refused to accept Medicaid recipients because the reimbursement rates are simply too low?

With the number of people dependent on Medicaid, if HHAs and LTCFs refused Medicaid recipients, our elderly and disabled would suffer.

Perhaps the average length of life would decrease. Perhaps we would implement legal euthanasia. Perhaps the suicide rate would increase. Perhaps the homelessness percentage would reach an all-time high. Is this the world in which you want to live?? Is this the world in which you want to age??

In my opinion, the way we treat our elderly, disabled and needy population is a direct reflection on the level of civilization or educated sophistication.

Here is an excerpt of an article published in 2013 when China passed its new Elderly Rights Law:

Korea: Celebrating old age
Not only do Koreans respect the elderly, but they also celebrate them. For Koreans, the 60th and 70th birthdays are prominent life events, which are commemorated with large-scale family parties and feasts. As in Chinese culture, the universal expectation in Korea is that roles reverse once parents age, and that it is an adult child’s duty — and an honorable one at that — to care for his or her parents.

The U.S. and U.K.: Protestantism at play
Western cultures tend to be youth-centric, emphasizing attributes like individualism and independence. This relates back to the Protestant work ethic, which ties an individual’s value to his or her ability to work — something that diminishes in old age. Anthropologist Jared Diamond, who has studied the treatment of the elderly across cultures, has said the geriatric in countries like the U.K. and U.S. live “lonely lives separated from their children and lifelong friends.” As their health deteriorates, the elderly in these cultures often move to retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes.”

#4: It is in our best interest as a public for HHAs and LTCFs to stay in business.

Or we can become more like the Koreans. At least, in this one respect, would emulating the Korean attitude be so bad?

Conclusion

Obviously, we cannot shift the American attitude toward the elderly, disabled and needy within one generation.

But we CAN increase the PCS reimbursement rate.

Here, the forefront was not as effective as needed. Maybe there is a need for a “backend” act of litigation…