Justia Public Benefits Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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Once a person turns 65 or has received federal disability benefits for 24 months, he becomes “entitled” to Medicare Part A, 42 U.S.C. 426(a)–(b) benefits. Not all patients who qualify for Medicare Part A have their hospital treatment paid for by the program; a patient’s stay may exceed Medicare’s 90-day cap or a patient may be covered by private insurance.Medicare pays hospitals a fixed rate for in-patient treatment based on the patient’s diagnosis, regardless of the hospital’s actual cost, subject to the “disproportionate share hospital” (DSH) adjustment, which provides higher-than-usual rates to hospitals that serve a higher-than-usual percentage of low-income patients. The DSH adjustment is calculated by adding the Medicare fraction (proportion of a hospital’s Medicare patients who have low incomes) and the Medicaid fraction (proportion of a hospital’s total patients who are not entitled to Medicare and have low incomes). A 2004 HHS regulation provides: If the patient meets the basic statutory criteria for Medicare, that patient counts in the denominator and, if poor, in the numerator of the Medicare fraction. The Ninth Circuit declared the regulation invalid.The Supreme Court reversed. In calculating the Medicare fraction, individuals “entitled to" Medicare Part A benefits are all those qualifying for the program, regardless of whether they receive Medicare payments for a hospital stay. Counting everyone who qualifies for Medicare benefits in the Medicare fraction—and no one who qualifies for those benefits in the Medicaid fraction—accords with the statute’s attempt to capture, through separate measurements, two different segments of a hospital’s low-income patient population. Throughout the Medicare statute, “entitled to benefits” is essentially a term of art meaning “qualifying for benefits” and coexists with limitations on payment. View "Becerra v. Empire Health Foundation, For Valley Hospital Medical Center" on Justia Law

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The employer-sponsored group health plan offers all of its participants the same limited coverage for outpatient dialysis. A dialysis provider sued the plan, citing the Medicare Secondary Payer statute, which makes Medicare a “secondary” payer to an individual’s existing insurance plan for certain medical services, including dialysis, when that plan already covers the same services, 42 U.S.C. 1395y(b)(1)(C), (2), (4). To prevent plans from circumventing their primary-payer obligation for end-stage renal disease treatment, a plan may not differentiate in the benefits it provides between individuals having end-stage renal disease and other individuals based on the existence of end-stage renal disease, the need for renal dialysis, “or in any other manner” and may not take into account that an individual is entitled to or eligible for Medicare due to end-stage renal disease. The Sixth Circuit ruled that the limited payments for dialysis treatment had a disparate impact on individuals with end-stage renal disease.The Supreme Court reversed. The plan's coverage terms for outpatient dialysis do not violate section 1395y(b)(1)(C) because those terms apply uniformly to all covered individuals. The statute prohibits a plan from differentiating in benefits between individuals with and without end-stage renal disease; it cannot be read to encompass a disparate-impact theory. The statute simply coordinates payments between group health plans and Medicare without dictating any particular level of dialysis coverage. The plan does not “take into account” whether its participants are entitled to or eligible for Medicare. View "Marietta Memorial Hospital Employee Health Benefit Plan v. DaVita Inc." on Justia Law

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George joined the Marine Corps in 1975 without disclosing his history of schizophrenic episodes. His medical examination noted no mental disorders. George suffered an episode during training. The Marines medically discharged him. George applied for veterans’ disability benefits based on his schizophrenia, 38 U.S.C. 1110. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals denied his appeal from a regional office denial in 1977. In 2014, George asked the Board to revise its final decision. When the VA denies a benefits claim, that decision generally becomes “final and conclusive” after the veteran exhausts the opportunity for direct appeal. George sought collateral review under an exception allowing revision of a final benefits decision at any time on grounds of “clear and unmistakable error,” 38 U.S.C. 5109A, 7111. He claimed that the Board applied a later-invalidated regulation to deny his claim without requiring the VA to rebut the statutory presumption that he was in sound condition when he entered service.The Veterans Court, Federal Circuit, and Supreme Court affirmed the denial of relief. The invalidation of a VA regulation after a veteran’s benefits decision becomes final cannot support a claim for collateral relief based on clear and unmistakable error. Congress adopted the “clear and unmistakable error doctrine” developed under decades of prior agency practice. The invalidation of a prior regulation constitutes a “change in interpretation of law” under historical agency practice, not “clear and unmistakable error.” That approach is consistent with the general rule that the new interpretation of a statute can only retroactively affect decisions still open on direct review. The fact that Congress did not expressly enact the specific regulatory principle barring collateral relief for subsequent changes in interpretation does not mean that the principle did not carry over. View "George v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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The formula that the Department of Health and Human Services must employ annually to set reimbursement rates for certain outpatient prescription drugs provided by hospitals to Medicare patients, 42 U.S.C. 1395l(t)(14)(A)(iii), provides two options. If HHS has conducted a survey of hospitals’ acquisition costs for each covered outpatient drug, it may set reimbursement rates based on the hospitals’ “average acquisition cost” for each drug, and may “vary” the reimbursement rates “by hospital group.” Absent a survey, HHS must set reimbursement rates based on “the average price” charged by manufacturers for the drug as calculated and adjusted by the Secretary. For 2018 and 2019, HHS did not conduct a survey but issued a final rule establishing separate reimbursement rates for hospitals that serve low-income or rural populations through the “340B program” and all other hospitals. The district court concluded that HHS had acted outside its statutory authority. The D.C. Circuit reversed. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The statute does not preclude judicial review of HHS’s reimbursement rates. Absent a survey of hospitals’ acquisition costs, HHS may not vary the reimbursement rates only for 340B hospitals; HHS’s 2018 and 2019 reimbursement rates for 340B hospitals were therefore unlawful. HHS’s power to increase or decrease the price is distinct from its power to set different rates for different groups of hospitals and HHS’s interpretation would make little sense given the statute’s overall structure. Congress, when enacting the statute, was aware that 340B hospitals paid less for covered prescription drugs and may have intended to offset the considerable costs of providing healthcare to the uninsured and underinsured in low-income and rural communities. View "American Hospital Association v. Becerra" on Justia Law

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Gallardo suffered catastrophic injuries resulting in permanent disability when a truck struck her as she stepped off her Florida school bus. Florida’s Medicaid agency paid $862,688.77 to cover Gallardo’s initial medical expenses and continues to pay her medical expenses. Gallardo’s suit against the truck’s owner and the School Board resulted in an $800,000 settlement, with $35,367.52 designated as compensation for past medical expenses. The settlement did not specifically allocate any amount for future medical expenses.The Medicaid Act requires participating states to pay for certain individuals’ medical costs and to make reasonable efforts to recoup those costs from liable third parties, 42 U.S.C. 1396k(a)(1)(A). Under Florida’s Medicaid Third-Party Liability Act, a beneficiary who accepts medical assistance from Medicaid automatically assigns to the state any right to third-party payments for medical care; Florida was entitled to $300,000--presumptively representing the portion of the recovery that is for past and future medical expenses.The Supreme Court affirmed the Eleventh Circuit. The Medicaid Act permits a state to seek reimbursement from settlement payments allocated for future medical care. The Act’s anti-lien provision, prohibiting states from recovering medical payments from a beneficiary’s “property,” does not foreclose recovery from settlement amounts other than those allocated for past medical care paid for by Medicaid. Florida’s statute is expressly authorized by section 1396k(a) and is within the recognized exception to the anti-lien provision. The relevant distinction is between medical and nonmedical expenses, not between past and future medical expenses. Section 1396k(a)(1)(A) does not authorize a “lifetime assignment” covering any rights acquired in the future but covers only rights the individual possesses while on Medicaid. View "Gallardo v. Marstiller" on Justia Law

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Social Security retirement benefits are calculated using a formula based on past earnings, 42 U.S.C. 415(a)(1)(A). Under the “windfall elimination” provision, benefits are reduced when a retiree receives a separate pension payment based on employment not subject to Social Security taxes. Pension payments exempt from the windfall reduction include those "based wholly on service as a member of a uniformed service.”A “military technician (dual status),” 10 U.S.C. 10216, is a “civilian employee” assisting the National Guard. Such technicians are required to maintain National Guard membership and must wear uniforms while working. For their work as full-time civilian technicians, they receive civil-service pay. If hired before 1984, they receive Civil Service Retirement System pension payments. As part-time National Guard members, they receive military pay and pension payments from a different arm of the government.The SSA applied the windfall elimination provision to the benefits calculation for Babcock, a dual-status technician. The district court and Sixth Circuit upheld that decision, declining to apply the uniformed-services exception.The Supreme Court affirmed. Civil Service Retirement System pensions generally trigger the windfall provision. Babcock’s technician work was not service “as” a National Guard member. A condition of employment is not the same as the capacity in which one serves. The statute states: “For purposes of this section and any other provision of law,” a technician “is” a “civilian employee,” “authorized and accounted for as” a “civilian.” While working in a civilian capacity, technicians are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. They possess characteristically civilian rights concerning employment discrimination, workers’ compensation, disability benefits, and overtime work; technicians hired before 1984 are “civil service” members, entitled to pensions as civil servants. Babcock’s civil-service pension payments are not based on his National Guard service, for which he received separate military pension payments. View "Babcock v. Kijakazi" on Justia Law

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Petitioners, whose applications for disability benefits were denied by the Social Security Administration (SSA) unsuccessfully challenged their adverse determinations before an SSA administrative law judge (ALJ). The SSA Appeals Council denied discretionary review in each case. Thereafter, the Supreme Court decided Lucia v. SEC, holding that the appointment of Securities and Exchange Commission ALJs by lower-level staff violated the Constitution’s Appointments Clause. The SSA ALJs were also appointed by lower-level staff. The Courts of Appeals held that the petitioners could not obtain judicial review of their Appointments Clause claims because they failed to raise those challenges in their administrative proceedings. The Supreme Court reversed. The Courts of Appeals erred in imposing an issue-exhaustion requirement on petitioners’ Appointments Clause claims. Administrative review schemes commonly require parties to give the agency an opportunity to address an issue before seeking judicial review of that question. If no statute or regulation imposes an issue-exhaustion requirement, courts decide whether to require issue exhaustion based on “an analogy to the rule that appellate courts will not consider arguments not raised before trial courts.” In the context of petitioners’ Appointments Clause challenges, two considerations tip the scales against imposing an issue-exhaustion requirement: agency adjudications are generally ill-suited to address structural constitutional challenges, which usually fall outside the adjudicators’ areas of technical expertise, and the Supreme Court has consistently recognized a futility exception to exhaustion requirements. Petitioners assert purely constitutional claims about which SSA ALJs have no special expertise and for which they can provide no relief. View "Carr v. Saul" on Justia Law

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The Medicare program offers additional payments to institutions that serve a “disproportionate number” of low-income patients, 42 U.S.C. 1395ww(d)(5)(F)(i)(I), calculated using the hospital’s “Medicare fraction.” The fraction’s denominator is the time the hospital spent caring for patients entitled to Medicare Part A benefits; the numerator is the time the hospital spent caring for Part-A-entitled patients who were also entitled to income support payments under the Social Security Act. Medicare Part C (Medicare Advantage) was created in 1997. Part C, beneficiaries may choose to have the government pay their private insurance premiums rather than pay for their hospital care directly. Part C enrollees tend to be wealthier than Part A enrollees, so counting them makes the fraction smaller and reduces hospitals’ payments. In 2014, the Medicare website indicated that fractions for fiscal year 2012 included Part C patients. Hospitals sued, claiming violation the Medicare Act’s requirement to provide public notice and a 60-day comment period for any “rule, requirement, or other statement of policy . . . that establishes or changes a substantive legal standard governing . . . the payment for services.”The Supreme Court affirmed the D.C. Circuit in agreeing with the hospitals. The government has not identified a lawful excuse for neglecting its statutory notice-and-comment obligations. The 2014 announcement established or changed a “substantive legal standard” not an interpretive legal standard. The Medicare Act and the Administrative Procedures Act do not use the word “substantive” in the same way. The Medicare Act contemplates that “statements of policy” can establish or change a “substantive legal standard." Had Congress wanted to follow the APA in the Medicare Act and exempt interpretive rules and policy statements from notice and comment, it could have cross-referenced the APA exemption, 5 U.S.C. 553(b)(A). View "Azar v. Allina Health Services" on Justia Law

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The Social Security Act permits judicial review of “any final decision . . . after a hearing” by the Social Security Administration (SSA), 42 U.S.C. 405(g). Claimants for Title XVI supplemental security income disability benefits must generally proceed through a four-step process before federal-court review: seek an initial determination of eligibility; seek reconsideration; request a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ); and seek review of the ALJ’s decision by the Appeals Council within 60 days of receiving the ALJ’s ruling. If the claimant misses that deadline and cannot show good cause for doing so, the Appeals Council dismisses the request. Smith’s claim for disability benefits was denied on initial determination, upon reconsideration, and on the merits by an ALJ. The Appeals Council dismissed Smith’s request for review as untimely. Smith sought judicial review of the dismissal. The Sixth Circuit affirmed dismissal for lack of jurisdiction, holding that the Appeals Council’s dismissal of an untimely petition is not a “final decision.”A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. An Appeals Council dismissal on timeliness grounds after a claimant has had an ALJ hearing on the merits qualifies as a “final decision . . . made after a hearing” under section 405(g). The Appeals Council’s dismissal is the final stage of review, 20 CFR 416.1472; Smith obtained the kind of hearing that section 405(g) most naturally suggests. The dismissal is not merely collateral but an end to a proceeding in which a substantial factual record has been developed. The Court noted that “Congress designed [the statute as a whole] to be ‘unusually protective’ of claimants” and “the strong presumption that Congress intends judicial review of administrative action.” View "Smith v. Berryhill" on Justia Law

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Biestek, a former construction worker, applied for social security disability benefits, claiming he could no longer work due to physical and mental disabilities. To determine whether Biestek could successfully transition to less physically demanding work, the ALJ heard testimony from a vocational expert regarding the types of jobs Biestek could still perform and the number of such jobs that existed in the national economy. The statistics came from her own market surveys. The expert refused Biestek’s attorney's request to turn over the surveys. The ALJ denied Biestek benefits. An ALJ’s factual findings are “conclusive” if supported by “substantial evidence,” 42 U.S.C. 405(g).The Sixth Circuit and the Supreme Court upheld the ALJ’s determination. A vocational expert’s refusal to provide private market-survey data upon the applicant’s request does not categorically preclude the testimony from counting as “substantial evidence.” In some cases, the refusal to disclose data, considered along with other shortcomings, will undercut an expert’s credibility and prevent a court from finding that “a reasonable mind” could accept the expert’s testimony; the refusal will sometimes interfere with effective cross-examination, which a reviewing court may consider in deciding how to credit an expert’s opinion. In other cases, even without supporting data, an applicant will be able to probe the expert’s testimony on cross-examination. The Court declined to establish a categorical rule, applying to every case in which a vocational expert refuses a request for underlying data. The inquiry remains case-by-case, taking into account all features of the expert’s testimony, with the rest of the record, and defers to the presiding ALJ. View "Biestek v. Berryhill" on Justia Law