Legal Insights and Perspectives for the Healthcare Industry

A final rule released by the US Department of Homeland Security will make it more difficult for foreign nationals who use public benefits to adjust or extend their immigration status in the United States based on their likelihood of becoming a “public charge” in the future. The rule also expands the list of programs that can lead to a public charge determination to those that provide healthcare and social services to vulnerable populations including Medicaid, SSI, SNAP, TANF, and federal housing benefits.

In an opinion of significant importance to the administration of the Medicare program, the US Supreme Court issued a 7–1 decision requiring the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to follow notice and comment rulemaking when adopting a “statement of policy” that establishes or changes a “substantive legal standard.” The near unanimous Court[1] upheld the DC Circuit Court’s decision in Allina Health Services v. Price, 863 F.3d 937, 939 (DC Cir. 2017), which highlighted an important distinction between Medicare Act and Administrative Procedure Act (APA) rulemaking requirements.

The APA establishes a statutory exemption from notice and comment rulemaking procedures in the case of “interpretive rules, general statements of policy . . . or agency . . . practice.” 5 USC § 553(b)(A) (emphasis added). CMS relied on an assumption that this “interpretive rule exception” applied to the policy it adopted in order to include Medicare Part C patient days in the Medicare fraction of the payment formula used to calculate the qualification for, and amount of, the Medicare disproportionate share hospital (DSH) payment adjustment. The policy resulted in the reduction of Medicare DSH payments for hospitals until 2013, when the agency furnished notice and comment. Like the DC Circuit, the Supreme Court rejected the government’s argument that the Medicare Act rulemaking requirement in 42 USC § 1395hh(a)(2) implicitly incorporated a similar interpretive rule exception permitting such a policy.

The healthcare industry awaits the US Supreme Court’s decision in Azar v. Allina Health Services with nervous anticipation. The high court stepped in to settle the dispute and the broader legal question developing among the circuit courts relating to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) authority to adopt so-called “interpretive rules” affecting significant Medicare program policies. CMS asserts that it possesses such authority under the Medicare Act based on an analogous exception in the more general Administrative Procedures Act (APA), which permits agencies to adopt interpretive rules, and CMS has used this presumed authority to sidestep the formalities of notice and comment rulemaking in certain Medicare policy changes. In the instant case, CMS was defending its ability to change, without notice and comment, its construction of the statutory phrase “entitled to Medicare Part A” in the Medicare disproportionate share (DSH) payment formula, a change that ultimately worked to dilute the amount of Medicare DSH payments for hundreds of hospitals. The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit rejected CMS’s argument.