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.
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.
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.
It is a timeless joke. What goes down, but never goes up? Medicaid rates!
Having a Medicaid card is as useful as holding a lottery ticket. Sure, maybe you’ll hit the jackpot and find a quality health care provider with whom you share some common connection, but, most likely, you will receive nothing but false hope. 10% of nothing is nothing.
For health care providers that do accept Medicaid – how many of you are accepting new patients? Or maybe the better question is – how many of you are profitable from your Medicaid patients?
Because we live in a society in which we need money to live, if Medicaid pays less than the cost, health care providers will not accept Medicaid. And you cannot blame them. It’s happening all over the country. In Utah, dentists are un-enrolling in Medicaid, i.e., refusing their Medicaid patients. See article. Pennsylvania has a shortage of psychiatrists..even more so who accept Medicaid. See article. “Some 55% of doctors in major metropolitan areas refuse to take new Medicaid patients, according to a 2014 report by Merritt Hawkins. The Department of Health and Human Services reported that same year that 56% of Medicaid primary-care doctors and 43% of specialists weren’t available to new patients.” See article.
Medicaid is failing our most vulnerable and many more. Medicaid, as it exists now, fails every taxpayer, every health care provider who accepts it, and every family member of a developmentally disabled person who is dependent on Medicaid.
The cost of the Medicaid program is expected to rise from $500 billion to $890 billion by 2024, according to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Yet – throwing more money at a dysfunctional program does not equate to Medicaid recipients gaining access to quality care. The increased money is not going to the services for Medicaid recipients. The ballooned Medicaid budget is not earmarked to elevate the current, inadequate Medicaid reimbursements, which would induce more health care providers to accept Medicaid. The higher the cost of Medicaid, the more the government slashes the reimbursement rates. Yet our government is willing to throw Medicaid dollars at managed care organizations (MCOs) to release the burden of managing such shortfalls and turn a blind eye when our taxpayers’ money is not used to provide Medicaid medically necessary services to recipients, but to compensate CEOs $400,000 or allow alleged extortion.
For example, in obstetrics, if the national Medicaid reimbursement rate for ob/gyn visits is $1.00, here, in NC, Medicaid reimburses ob/gyns 88¢. Which is why only 34% of North Carolina ob/gyns accept Medicaid.
If it is imperative for the Medicaid reimbursements to increase (to, at the very least, cost, if not a slight profit), then how do we accomplish such an insurmountable task?
There are two options: (1) lobbying (which, obviously, has not been successful thus far); and (2) litigation.
Section 30(A) of the Medicaid Act 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.” Id.
Numerous other articles have been published in the last few years that cite the direct correlation between reimbursement rates and quality of care.
How do we stop Medicaid reimbursement rates from dropping and the executives of those companies charged with managing Medicaid funds from lining their own pockets?
According to the Supreme Court, suing under the Supremacy Clause is not the answer.
In Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Services, providers of habilitative Medicaid services sued the State of Idaho for Medicaid reimbursements rates being too low as to violate Section 30(A) of the Medicaid Act.
In the Armstrong decision from last year, the Supreme Court, Scalia found that, in enacting §1902(a)(30)(A) Congress had empowered the HHS Secretary to withhold all Federal funds from states that violate federal law. According to Armstrong, this “express provision of an administrative remedy” shows that Congress intended that the Secretary be the enforcer – not the courts. In other words, the Supreme Court held that
“The sole remedy Congress provided for a State’s failure to comply with Medicaid’s requirements—for the State’s “breach” of the Spending Clause contract—is the withholding of Medicaid funds by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.” Armstrong.
In other words, according to Armstrong, the sole remedy for health care providers who demand higher Medicaid reimbursement rates, will be for the Secretary of HHS to withhold Medicaid funds from the state. Such a drastic measure would undoubtedly cause the state such a budgetary shortfall that the state would soon be in a position in which it could not reimburse health care providers at all. Therefore, the providers go from receiving woefully low reimbursement rates to receiving none at all. That seems hardly the situation that the Supreme Court would want.
There are still litigation options for health care providers to sue in order to increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate. Just not through the Supremacy Clause.
I have a joke: What goes down, but never goes up?
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.”
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.
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?
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???
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.
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.
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.
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.