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Is Medicaid a Right? Are Medicaid Rate Cuts Unconstitutional?

Posted Apr 21 2010 12:00am

By: Matt McKennan

Photo by rpscott123

Photo by rpscott123

Seton Hall Law
Class of 2011

Expanding Medicaid Rolls and Limited Access to Care

Medicaid beneficiaries have a difficult time accessing care .  Physicians are not required to participate in the program and due to low reimbursement rates, among other factors , many physicians choose not to join.  The President, federal and state lawmakers, physicians, hospitals, and patients ( regardless of their political views ) undoubtedly agree that access to care for Medicaid beneficiaries is a growing problem.  Notably, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) will likely add approximately 16 million beneficiaries to state Medicaid rolls.  According to Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, “it dumps 15 to 18 million low-income Americans into a Medicaid program that none of us would want to be a part of because 50 percent of doctors won’t see new patients. So it’s like giving someone a ticket to a bus line where the buses only run half the time .”

Interestingly, Medicaid’s “ Equal Access provision ” requires that participating states,

“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.”

If Sen. Alexander is right and there is substantial evidence that Medicaid participants face significant obstacles to access – then states are violating federal law, or the federal law is so lax in its enforcement or its mandates that it has become ineffective.  Health reform vests huge responsibility in the hands of the states , and the ability to enforce federal law or the willingness of states to comply will play a crucial role in achieving its goals.

In response to Medicaid’s expansion, states face a number of critical decisions.  Currently, states are contemplating cuts to already low Medicaid rates.  According to the National Association of State Medicaid Directors, “ state budget shortfalls in the coming fiscal year . . . will total $140 billion.”  Adding additional pressure, state constitutions generally require that state governments maintain a balanced budget .  As Medicaid expands, states will face even more difficult decisions when balancing budgets and implementing Medicaid consistently with federal guidelines.

How Will the States Respond?  Are Rate Cuts the Final Answer?

In response to increasing federal demands and local financial pressures, states are pursuing legal action as a successful lawsuit would surely decrease future state obligations under Medicaid.  States are also enacting legislation to oppose the bill and according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states have legislation to oppose certain reforms.  Others are lobbying Congress for repeal and those interested have already attested “that if any federal health care takeover is passed in 2010, I will support with my time, money, and vote only candidates who pledge to support its repeal and replacement with real reforms that lower health care costs without growing government.”

States may eventually decide to drop the program altogether.  After all, Medicaid is voluntary.  States are not obligated to provide medical assistance if they choose not to participate.  According to the Heritage Foundation, states would save over $1 trillion by opting out and “failure to leave Medicaid might be viewed as irresponsible on the part of elected state officials.”   On March 18, Arizona dropped its Children’s Health Insurance Program, foregoing millions in federal aid and leaving 47,000 children without insurance .  Earlier this year, Governor Jim Gibbons of Nevada stated, “[b]ecause it appears Sen. Reid’s plan is no longer viable, this crushing additional cost to the state isn’t forcing us to seriously consider opting out of Medicaid at this time.  However, if Congress wants to pass the buck and shift the fiscal burden of health care reform directly onto the states instead of looking seriously at ways to reduce spending and costs, we will be forced to revisit the issue.”  Like the Reid bill, the ACA also increases state Medicaid obligations.  And even if it increases the federal share , it is still worth asking whether Gov. Jim Gibbons  is once again seriously considering opting out of the program.

Alternatively, States may decide that Medicaid is just not that bad.  They may decide that it might just be a good idea to take advantage of the federal government’s helping hand .  Realistically, it is highly unlikely that states will drop Medicaid.  Dropping a program that provides care to low-income families is morally indefensible , especially without an alternative safety net.  Moreover, dropping Medicaid is fiscally irresponsible as the uninsured would undoubtedly wind up in emergency rooms seeking high-cost care at the private payers’ expense .  However, even if states decide to continue participating in Medicaid, the requirements of Medicaid must be enforced to achieve success.  After all, states administer Medicaid and states set reimbursement rates.  Drastic rate cuts by financially strapped states will undeniably balance budgets, but at the same time cuts will likely limit access to care.  So what happens when states cut Medicaid rates? See here , here , and here .

Is Medicaid a Right?  Are Rate Cuts Unconstitutional?

Thankfully, Medicaid’s “ Equal Access provision ” requires that states pay reimbursement rates that are sufficient to assure access to care.  Unfortunately, it is not easily enforced and the remedies are limited.  On the one hand, the federal government can withdraw its support from states that fail to live up to the statute’s demands.  On the other hand, providers and beneficiaries can also pursue legal action .  Legal action, however, is not that easy.

Shortly after the Civil War, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1866 , providing equal rights to all “persons within the jurisdiction of the United States.”  In response, many Southern Governors refused to comply, frustrating Congressional intent as the KKK violently opposed the bill and terrorized the South without state intervention.  Congress then enacted 42 U.S.C. § 1983 .  It provides a private cause of action against state or local actors that violate federal rights.  At its most basic level, the cause of action reins in rogue states and local actors.  A plaintiff that pursues a Section 1983 claim to enforce Medicaid’s requirements is in essence alleging that a state is violating federal rights by failing to comply with the federal law (Medicaid).

Initially, the Supreme Court adopted this line of reasoning.  In Wilder v. Virginia Hospital Association , the Supreme Court held that Medicaid providers can file suit under Section 1983 when a state fails comply with Medicaid by setting unreasonable and inadequate rates.  Notably, Chief Justice Roberts, as deputy Solicitor General at the time, filed a brief in Wilder arguing that private citizens cannot force states to comply with Medicaid under Section 1983.  After Wilder, courts consistently held that Section 1983 provided a cause of action to enforce state compliance with Medicaid.  Over time, the circuit courts split regarding what the “Equal Access provision” requires.  Some courts held that it requires states to conduct a study before setting rates, while others held that it requires states to achieve results , such as setting rates that actually achieve equal access to care, regardless of a study.

However, in Gonzaga v. Doe , the Supreme Court  limited the availability of a cause of action under Section 1983.  Interestingly, now- Chief Justice Roberts argued before the Court in Gonzaga as well, this time successfully.  Since Gonzaga, circuit courts throughout the country have refused to allow Medicaid providers and beneficiaries to file suit under Section 1983 to enforce Medicaid’s “Equal Access provision” holding that Medicaid does not confer individual rights.  Compare pre-Gonzaga Orthopaedic Hospital with post-Gonzaga Sanchez .  In effect, Roberts’ argument in Wilder is now law and private citizens can no longer file suit under Section 1983 when states cut rates and limit access to care.

Fortunately, providers and beneficiaries have one more option.  Rather than filing suit under Section 1983, providers and beneficiaries are now successfully pursuing claims under the Supremacy Clause.  Under this theory, a state law that cuts reimbursement rates and decreases access to care conflicts with the “Equal Access provision.”   Therefore, because the state law conflicts with federal law, and federal law is the supreme law of the land, the state law is null (unconstitutional).  Plaintiffs have filed successful actions under the Supremacy Clause in California, resisting attempts to cut Medi-Cal payments for purely budgetary reasons.  A similar suit was filed in Washington last year.  On January 28, the Connecticut Association of Healthcare Facilities also filed suit , pursuing a Supremacy Clause action to enforce the “Equal Access provision.”

Although plaintiffs are experiencing success under the Supremacy Clause, there are a few drawbacks .  Unlike a suit under Section 1983, an action under the Supremacy Clause does not generally result in legal damages or attorney’s fees.  Instead, a plaintiff simply enjoins the unlawful state action.  Moreover, Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas have observed that the Supremacy Clause does not provide a cause of action to enforce Medicaid .  Rather, the Justices note that the only remedy is the withdrawal of federal funds .  Therefore, under the only legal theory available to enforce Medicaid at this time, states generally face no financial responsibility for cutting rates and decreasing access.  Further, the only cause of action to enforce Medicaid may rest on shaky ground.

In summary, history demonstrates that federal preemption will play a major role in implementing health reform , and these lessons must not be ignored.  The ACA expands Medicaid rolls and relies greatly on state compliance.  States have a limited number of options in response to their increasing responsibilities.  Eventually, constitutional challenges will end and states will likely continue to provide Medicaid assistance.  However, financially strapped states may end up administering a watered down program that denies access to care.  Therefore, to achieve the goals of reform, it is vitally important that states face realistic consequences if they refuse to administer Medicaid in compliance with federal law.  Ultimately, however, if states continue to cut rates, a strict federal standard regarding Medicaid reimbursement may be necessary.

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