Legal Insights and Perspectives for the Healthcare Industry

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of General Counsel (OGC) offered the healthcare industry the benefit of its legal analysis of the recent US Supreme Court opinion in Azar v. Allina Health Services (Allina) with respect to its impact on Medicare payment rules, sharing its Memorandum to the Principal Deputy Administrator & Director of the Center for Medicare dated October 31, 2019 (OGC Memo) with the public. The OGC recognized at the outset the primary directive of the decision –“The Supreme Court made clear that Congress has imposed more stringent procedural requirements for certain Medicare rules than the framework that otherwise would apply under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).”

The OGC then offered its advice as to the legal implications associated with that directive. If HHS or CMS “issued guidance that, under Allina, should have been promulgated through notice-and-comment rulemaking, the Department's ability to bring enforcement actions predicated on violations of those payment policies is restricted.” This concept works in concert with elements of the Department of Justice's Brand memorandum, which was also referenced in the OGC Memo. The OGC Memo then attempted to draw a distinction between guidance documents that do not require notice-and-comment rulemaking versus those that do. According to the OGC Memo, the principal inquiry in distinguishing between the two is the closeness of the guidance to the relative statutory or regulatory terms.

We invite you to join us on Thursday, October 17, for an overview discussion about federal rulemaking, including procedural and de facto changes under the current administration. In this A–Z of Federal Rulemaking webinarSusan Harthill, Jonathan Snare, and Timothy Lynch will discuss the impact of participating in federal rulemaking, how to get involved, the roles of the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and more.

Register for the webinar now >

Paired with the recent decision in Azar v. Allina, the healthcare industry in particular can hope for a greater voice in the regulatory process in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s directives. With Allina’s requirement that all statements of policy or guidance with substantive legal effect must proceed through notice and comment rulemaking, and Kisor’s instructions for greater judicial diligence with respect to interpreting agency rules, the healthcare industry may have increased confidence that the courts can provide a meaningful role in protecting regulated parties from unchecked agency authority. This is of great value in an era of rapidly changing and thoroughly regulated healthcare delivery systems.

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.