Tuesday, January 20, 2015
In 2012, the Supreme Court heard two important Medicaid cases, one in January of 2012 pertaining to payment rates (Douglas v. ILC), and the other in March 2012 pertaining to the ACA's Medicaid expansion (NFIB v. Sebelius). In Douglas, the Court's majority deferred to HHS, allowing the agency to exercise primary jurisdiction over California's Medicaid payment rates and punting the question regarding Supremacy Clause actions by Medicaid providers against noncompliant states. And, in NFIB, the Court decided that Medicaid's modification under the ACA was not Medicaid enough for purposes of Spending Clause doctrine but was Medicaid enough for purposes of the remedy, which was to limit HHS's authority to terminate Medicaid funding for states that refused to expand Medicaid eligibility under the terms of the ACA. Confused yet? So is the Court, and that's a potential problem.
Fast forward to 2014, and the Court is once again hearing a Medicaid reimbursement rate case and an ACA case, in the same time frame as 2012, both of which could be very disruptive. The Medicaid rate case is Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center, and the weirdly confused oral arguments occurred today. The question the Court granted from the petition for certiorari was whether private parties can enforce the Medicaid Act's equal access provision ("30(a)") against a noncompliant state when HHS has not demanded compliance from the state through payment of adequate reimbursement rates. Armstrong may have far-reaching implications for the Medicaid program, for implied rights of action, and for federal courts' jurisdiction over Supremacy Clause actions, to name a few possible dimensions. Steve Vladeck, author of a very important amicus brief on behalf of former HHS officials, has posted about some of these issues. Rather than re-hash his fine commentary, or Will Baude's pithy overview for SCOTUSblog this morning, I will quickly share some impressions of today's oral arguments.
First, the justices had no idea how Medicaid works, which matters quite a lot when it may be the vehicle for constitutional change. Justice Breyer, for example, did not appear to understand the difference between the state describing how it would set payment rates and the state actually setting the amount of money it would pay to reimburse health care providers for their services. Here, Idaho created a methodology for rate setting that was approved by HHS, but then its legislature decided to use a different rate setting methodology tied to the state's budget. Breyer kept using the example of a doctor submitting a bill for $80 when all he could receive was $60, but the example was inapposite. Another minor example is that the prohibition against balance billing was news to the justices. Another example is Justice Alito's hypothetical about states that allow for medical marijuana being sued because feeral law does not permit possession of marijuana, which had no apparent relevance for the Medicaid preemption questions at hand.
James Piotrowski, on behalf of Exceptional Child Center tried to limit the conversation to whether the state actually followed the plan that CMS approved (which it appears Idaho did not). He also tried to explain why a broad-based Supremacy Clause/Spending Clause decision would be both unnecessary and dangerous, and he advocated for a limited ruling that would allow this set of plaintiffs to seek an injunction to force the state to abide by the reimbursement plan that HHS approved.
The trouble is that the Solicitor General, as he did in 2012, promoted the view that no private rights of action should be permitted. Justices Sotomayor and Kagan quickly called out Mr. Kneedler on HHS’ deep disagreement with this position. Kneedler asserted that HHS does not want these private actions, even though HHS pointedly did not sign the SG's brief, and even though the amicus brief here and in Douglas on behalf of former HHS officials (of all political stripes) clearly explained that HHS both expects and needs private actions to occur. In both cases, the former HHS officials explained that the agency is so woefully understaffed and underfunded that it could never police all of the states' reimbursement rates on a claim by claim basis.
The four dissenters from Douglas were relatively quiet during oral arguments today. In 2012, the Chief Justice authored a dissent that would have denied private rights of action under 30(a) to force states to pay adequate payment rates for equal access to health care providers. I suspect that Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Thomas remain in the same positions, unless they were convinced that Idaho should have just stuck to the plan and their legislature drove off the rails after CMS approved their rate setting methodology. The real question will be if Kennedy sees this action as some kind of affront to state sovereignty given his affinity for federalism resolutions. If so, then Supremacy Clause actions will be lost for 30(a) litigants, and states will run over Medicaid providers who cannot enforce the adequate payment language in the Medicaid Act. In the very moment that more and more states are negotiating Medicaid expansion under the power given to them by the Court in NFIB, this would be a dangerous precedent both theoretically and on the ground. More to come.