In an Advisory Opinion dated October 20, 2017, to Crouse Health Hospital (“Crouse Hospital”), the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) agreed that the Non-Profit Institutions Act (“NPIA”) would protect the sale of discounted drugs from Crouse Hospital to the employees, retirees, and their dependents of an affiliated medical practice (Crouse Medical Practice, PLLC) (“Medical Practice”) from antitrust liability under the Robinson-Patman Act.  Significantly, the FTC provided this advice despite the fact that the Medical Practice is a for-profit entity, and is not owned by Crouse Hospital.

The Robinson-Patman Act is primarily a consumer protection statute that prohibits, among other things, discrimination in the sale of like kind products, including pharmaceuticals, to different buyers.  As a result, and absent some exemption, the resale of discounted drugs purchased by a not-for-profit hospital to its patients would be subject to challenge.

The NPIA, however, exempts from the reach of the Robinson-Patman Act the sale of discounted drugs to “schools, colleges, universities, public libraries, churches, hospitals, and charitable institutions not operated for profit,” provided those drugs are purchased for that entity’s “own use”.  15 U.S.C.A. § 13(f). The Supreme Court, in Abbott Laboratories v. Portland Retail Druggists Ass’n, 425 U.S. 1 (1976), defined “own use” to mean “what reasonably may be regarded as use by the hospital in the sense that such use is a part of and promotes the hospital’s intended institutional operation in the care of persons who are its patients.”  Id. at 14.  The Supreme Court went on to conclude, among other things,  that the resale of discounted drugs to a hospital’s employees and their dependents would qualify as the hospital’s “own use.”  The FTC, in a number of prior Advisory Opinions, further extended the application of the NPIA to the sale of discounted drugs to employees of hospital affiliates, and other similar entities.  However, those entities were generally not-for-profit entities, likely eligible for protection under the NPIA on their own, and owned and/or controlled by the hospital.

The Advisory Opinion to Crouse Hospital is unique in that the Medical Practice is a for profit entity and clearly would not be eligible for protection on its own under the NPIA.  Furthermore, the Medical Practice is not directly owned by Crouse Hospital calling into question whether the resale could qualify as the hospital’s “own use” as required by the NPIA.

Despite these facts, the FTC concluded that NPIA should apply to the resale of discounted drugs to the employees, retirees, and their dependents of the Medical Group because: 1) Crouse Hospital was responsible for the formation of the Medical Practice and did so “to develop an integrated medical service system to encourage both organizations to work together to improve care and promote the charitable purposes of Course Hospital”; 2) Crouse Hospital, despite not owning the Medical Practice, still had ultimate decision-making control and authority over the Medical Practice; and, 3) all profits earned by the Medical Practice were assigned to Crouse Hospital.  Based on these factors, the FTC determined that “Crouse Medical Practice is an integral part of Crouse Hospital’s ability to fulfill its intended institutional function of providing care and promoting community health,” and, therefore, the resale was for Crouse Hospital’s own use.

Hospitals and health systems should take note that simply because an affiliate is a for profit entity does not automatically mean NPIA protection does not apply. A deeper look into the relationship between the hospital and affiliate, and consideration of the affiliate’s mission may support an extension of the NPIA.

New rules issued on November 7, 2017 by FDA will make it easier for companies to offer certain types of genetic tests directly-to-consumers (DTC), without a health-care provider intermediary.

The first rule exempts “autosomal recessive carrier screening gene mutation detection systems” that are offered DTC from FDA premarket review.  FDA first proposed this exemption in 2015, on the same date as the agency issued a final order classifying these types of tests as Class II medical devices, in response to a request from 23andMe.  The 2015 final rule specified the conditions under which all companies could offer autosomal recessive carrier tests directly to the public.  By finalizing the exemption, FDA is permitting companies to offer these tests DTC without the need for prior FDA review.  These companies will still be subject to general requirements applicable to all medical device manufacturers, as well as to the “special controls” specified by FDA for these types of tests in the final rule.

Similarly, the second rule finalizes a new medical device classification for  DTC “genetic health risk assessment” (GHR)  (i.e., predictive) tests.  The classification specifies the conditions under which these tests may be marketed, and includes the requirement for a 510(k) premarket notification to FDA. However, in a Federal Register Notice, also issued yesterday, FDA proposes to exempt GHR tests from the 510(k) premarket submission requirement after a company has successfully obtained FDA clearance of its first GHR assay, and provided that the company continues to follow the specified special controls for this class of tests.  Comments to this proposed exemption are being accepted by FDA until January 8. 

Please reach out to Gail Javitt or the Food and Drug Law practice team members for additional information.

On November 1, 2017, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service (“CMS”) released the Medicare Hospital Outpatient Prospective Payment System (“OPPS”) final rule (“Final Rule”), finalizing a Medicare payment reduction from Average Sales Price (“ASP”) + 6% to ASP – 22.5%, for 340B discounted drugs in the hospital outpatient setting, as was proposed in the OPPS proposed rule earlier this year. This payment reduction is effective January 1, 2018, and would primarily impact disproportionate share hospitals, rural referral centers, and non-rural sole community hospitals.

340B Program Generally

The 340B program, established by section 340B of the Public Health Service Act by the Veterans Health Care Act of 1992, generally allows for certain eligible health care providers (“Covered Entities”) to purchase outpatient drugs at discounted prices. The 340B program is administered by Health Resources and Services Administration (“HRSA”).

CMS Policy Background for the Final Rule

In response to reports of the growth of 340B drug utilization by hospital providers, as well as the recent trends in high and growing prices of several separately payable drugs administered under Part B, CMS reexamined the appropriateness of the ASP +6% payment methodology to 340B drugs. This policy change as finalized would allow the Medicare program and beneficiaries to pay less for outpatient drugs, in a way that more closely aligns Medicare payment for 340B drugs to the resources expended by hospitals in acquiring such drugs. Additionally, CMS did not believe that beneficiaries should be responsible for a copayment rate tied to ASP + 6% when the actual cost to acquire the drug under the 340B program is much lower than the ASP for the drug.

340B Drug Payment Reduction

Under the Medicare program, CMS generally reimburses separately payable outpatient drugs and biologics based upon a drug’s ASP as reported by its manufacturer, plus a 6% markup, regardless of whether the drug is purchased at a 340B discount price. Drugs that are not separately payable are packaged into the payment for the associated procedure and no separate payment is made for them.

Effective January 1, 2018, CMS will reduce this payment rate to ASP – 22.5% for non-pass-through separately payable drugs and biologics acquired with a 340B discount. Excluded from this payment reduction are drugs or biologics that have pass-through payment status (which are required to be paid under the ASP + 6% methodology), or vaccines (which are excluded from the 340B program). In the proposed rule, CMS contemplated excluding blood clotting factors and radiopharmaceuticals from this payment reduction, however, CMS has decided to subject these two product types to the new policy. CMS noted that this ASP – 22.5% payment rate is based upon a 2015 MedPAC report in which MedPAC estimated that, on average, hospitals in the 340B Program “receive a minimum discount of 22.5 percent of the [ASP] for drugs paid under the [OPPS].”

Certain types of hospitals will not be affected by the change. CMS has exempted Covered Entities that are rural sole community hospitals, children’s hospitals, and cancer hospitals from this 340B drug payment reduction policy. Additionally, critical access hospitals are not affected by this policy because they are not paid under the OPPS. CMS has stated this payment reduction does not apply to 340B drugs furnished at non-excepted off-campus provider based departments.

To implement this payment reduction, CMS will be utilizing a claims modifier to track whether a drug is a 340B-acquired drug, and another claims modifier for whether the Covered Entity is exempt from this payment reduction policy. Hospitals will be required to report modifier “JG” with the associated nonpass-through separately payable drug’s HCPCS code to identify whether the drug was acquired with a 340B discount. The rural sole community hospitals, children’s hospitals, and cancer hospitals exempt from this payment reduction policy will be required to report the modifier “TB” with the associated HCPCS code of the 340B-acquired drug.

Additional Considerations

It is important to note that this new payment reduction policy generally does not apply to 340B drugs dispensed at contract pharmacies. Drugs reimbursed under the Medicare OPPS are generally physician administered drugs, whereas drugs dispensed at a contract pharmacy are generally self-administered retail drugs. Furthermore, this payment reduction policy does not affect 340B drug reimbursement for non-hospital Covered Entities, such as Federally Qualified Health Centers and Ryan White Grantees.

While HRSA manages the 340B program, this payment reduction is specifically for drugs reimbursed under the Medicare program. Accordingly, this policy does not affect reimbursement of 340B drugs by other government or private payers. However, it is possible that the Final Rule may embolden other payers to follow suit by adopting 340B payment reductions similar to CMS.

Organizations representing hospitals already have announced intent to take legal action against this 340B drug payment reduction. This legal action will likely focus on arguments that CMS exceeded its statutory authority in its ability to calculate and adjust 340B acquired drug payment rates, and doing so in a manner that discriminates against safety net hospitals violates the Medicare statutes.

The OPPS Final Rule will be published in the Federal Register on November 13, 2017 and available online at https://federalregister.gov/d/2017-23932. Epstein Becker & Green is available to provide guidance on how this new policy affects you.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (“MedPAC”) met in Washington, DC, on October 5-6, 2017. The purpose of this and other public meetings of MedPAC is for the commissioners to review the issues and challenges facing the Medicare program and then make policy recommendations to Congress. MedPAC issues these recommendations in two annual reports, one in March and another in June. MedPAC’s meetings can provide valuable insight into the state of Medicare, the direction of the program moving forward, and the content of MedPAC’s next report to Congress.

As thought leaders in health law, Epstein Becker Green monitors MedPAC developments to gauge the direction of the health care marketplace. Our five biggest takeaways from the October meeting are as follows:

  1. MedPAC reports the results from its recently conducted survey regarding telehealth utilization across the healthcare system.

This past summer, MedPAC identified several large health programs, Medicare beneficiaries, primary care physicians, and home health agencies to survey with the goal of better understanding their use and attitudes toward telehealth.  Results of this survey show that despite the success of certain telehealth programs for health plans (e.g., telestroke, telemental health) and the increased use of telehealth services among home health agencies, many of those surveyed believe that telehealth provides convenience and improves care only in limited circumstances.  There appears to be a consensus among plans, providers, and beneficiaries that there is little incentive to employ direct-to-consumer (“DTC”) telehealth services.  Even health systems that use telehealth services for pre-operation and follow-up visits, and observed reductions in hospital inpatient readmissions, reported that telehealth services are only financially justified if they help avoid Medicare’s inpatient readmission penalties.  Among surveyed beneficiaries, a majority reported that they are unlikely to use DTC telehealth services because they already have access to their normal physicians via email and telephone.  The beneficiaries’ reported that their primary concern is DTC services only provide them access to random physicians who would not be familiar with their medical histories.  Primary care physicians (“PCPs”) appeared to be concerned that DTC services would only add to their already burdened caseloads.  This sentiment seems founded in PCPs’ reports that electronic medical record systems add time and technical complications to their days instead of simplifying or making their jobs more effective or efficient.

The health plans surveyed by MedPAC cited various factors they believe hinder adoption of telehealth services, such as: federal and state regulations that limit Federal health care program coverage of telehealth services according to geographic locations or originating sites; the elimination of broadband subsidizing programs; and a perceived increased in administrative burden (i.e., complicated Medicare billing practices, required licensing for telehealth clinicians in each state, and credentialing telehealth providers for each facility.)  The health plans’ responses also suggest that state laws that mandate payment parity between in-person and telehealth services are more likely to encourage expansion of telehealth use than laws that merely mandate coverage parity between the two.

  1. MedPAC discusses commercial health plans’ telehealth coverage.

In MedPAC’s September meeting, MedPAC commenced discussion concerning Medicare payments for telehealth services, as mandated under Congress’ 21st Century Cures Act of 2016.  This month, MedPAC continued that discussion by addressing coverage of telehealth services by commercial health plans.  MedPAC’s discussion included the analysis of 48 individual plans available across all 50 states.  The plans included managed care products and various types of commercial health plans such as employer, individual, small and large group, and exchange plans.[1]

Interestingly, MedPAC’s findings do not indicate a significant difference between Medicare and commercial health plans in telehealth utilization and coverage.  The majority of health plans reported less than 1% of their plan enrollees using some form of telehealth service during the year.  The highest reported use was still less than 5% of enrollees.

Unlike Medicare, commercial health plans are more likely to cover urban-originating sites. However, only approximately half of the surveyed plans cover a patient’s residence as an originating site.  MedPAC found the most commonly covered telehealth services are basic Evaluation and Management (E&M) physician visits, mental health visits, and pharmacy management visits, but few cover a broad range of telehealth services.

The MedPAC report demonstrates that commercial health plans do not implement telehealth services to reduce costs, but rather to keep up with competitors who offer these services.  However, while the plans also did not report actual reductions in costs resulting from telehealth services, they did report improvements in convenience and access and increased telehealth use would eventually translate into cost reductions.

  1. MedPAC proposes eliminating the Merit-Based Incentive Payment System.

MedPAC proposed a drastic policy change to the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (“MACRA”); specifically to its Merit-Based Incentive Program (“MIPS”). MedPAC is concerned that the MIPS will not achieve the goal of identifying and rewarding high-value clinicians because it is overly complex and places an excessive burden on clinicians who wish to comply with reporting standards. Moreover, MedPAC states that the measures used are not proven as associated with high-value patient care or improved patient outcomes. Finally, because clinicians choose on which measures they are evaluated, each clinician’s composite score is comprised of performance on different measures. This leads to inconsistencies in how clinicians are compared to each other, and therefore inequities in their payment adjustments.

Given the above, MedPAC proposed a policy option to eliminate individual-level reporting requirements of the MIPS and to establish a voluntary value program in its place. The new voluntary value program would encourage fee-for-service clinicians to join other clinicians and assume responsibility for the health outcomes of their collective patient panels. Clinicians would have the option of being measured as part of a larger group, comprised of other clinicians in their area or affiliated hospitals. Moreover, population-based measures would easily be extracted from the claims submitted by the clinicians – significantly reducing their reporting burden.

MedPAC is considering formalizing this policy proposal as a draft recommendation in December.

  1. MedPAC proposes limiting the use of Physician-Owned Distributors through the Stark law.

MedPAC proposed two policy approaches to limit the use of Physician-Owned Distributors (“PODs”) through the Stark law. PODs currently operate under the indirect compensation exception and “per unit of service” rule of the Stark law, which allows their business model to avoid self-referral liability. However, MedPAC is concerned that this “loophole” contradicts the spirit of the law because it has the potential to influence care based on financial incentives.

The first proposed policy approach would eliminate the application of the “per unit of service” rule to PODs, which would result in PODs no longer meeting the indirect compensation exception. CMS took this type of direct action before when, after reports of abuse, they explicitly eliminated the application of the per unit of service rule to space and equipment leases. The second proposed policy approach redefines PODs as Designated Health Service entities under the Stark law, thereby prohibiting physician ownership of PODs. Under this new definition, physicians with stakes in PODs would be prohibited from referring patients for services using devices supplied by their POD unless another exception applied.

To address the concerns regarding the effect of these policy changes on medical device innovation, MedPAC proposed an exception for large, publicly traded PODs and for PODs that meet specified, limited criteria – for example, if less than 40% of a POD’s business is generated by physician-owners.

If Congress, or more likely, CMS, implements these changes to the Stark Law, hospitals will have a strong incentive to monitor their supply chain to avoid denial of payment and False Claims Act liability. Further, although such changes would limit PODs, some PODs would likely survive on the ability to sell to non-DHS entities, such as ambulatory surgical centers.

  1. MedPAC recommends paying for sequential stays and aligning regulatory requirements in a unified payment system for post-acute care.

MedPAC discussed the continuation of its efforts for a Post-Acute Care (“PAC”) unified payment system. Specifically, MedPAC addressed two important implementation efforts: 1. the effect of sequential stays in PAC on payment; and 2. how to align the relevant regulatory requirements with the new payment system.

The unified payment system would make payments based on patient characteristics rather than patient settings. As a result, sequential PAC stays in different settings would present challenges to accurate payment. MedPAC wants to ensure that the new payment system would not inadvertently shortchange or influence the care that beneficiaries receive. As such, MedPAC plans to examine the cost of stays over the next year, comparing the length of initial stays and the length of later stays, and to consider policies that adjust payments to more accurately reflect the cost of care.

Similarly, regulatory requirements would need to be reformed to align with a new unified PAC payment system. MedPAC proposed various possibilities, such as eliminating the 25-day average length of stay requirement for long-term care hospitals or eliminating the 60% rule for inpatient rehabilitation facilities, as payment would no longer be based on the setting of the care provided.

MedPAC will conduct research on the implementation of a PAC unified payment system in the coming months for inclusion in the June 2018 report.

___

[1] MedPAC did not include fee-for-service plans in its report.

Our colleague Robert F. Atlas, President of EBG Advisors, Inc., published an advisory that will be of interest to stakeholders in the health care industry: The After-Effects of Graham-Cassidy’s Demise.

Following is an excerpt:

Taken together, the failure of the ACA repeal-and-replace effort (for now) bodes well for health care providers. The percentage of the population that’s covered—and thus is less likely to represent uncompensated care for providers—will remain fairly high, notwithstanding some erosion if the individual market isn’t bolstered.

Similarly, insurers will continue to have most of the enrollees whom they gained thanks to the ACA. True, at least with regard to exchange enrollees, the insurers may see a slightly worse adverse selection that would challenge profitability, but they can raise premiums without causing too many defections among the majority of enrollees who are eligible for federal premium subsidies. And the continuation of high levels of Medicaid enrollment benefits many insurers as well. Nearly all states contract with private health plans to coordinate care for Medicaid beneficiaries in return for capitation payments; in the aggregate, approximately one-half of all Medicaid dollars run through private plans.

For most employers, the direct effects of Graham-Cassidy and other GOP repeal-and-replace measures were never very strong. Had Graham-Cassidy passed, the mandate for employers with 50 or more workers to offer health insurance would have disappeared, but with the labor market tightening, few large employers are inclined to stop offering health benefits anyway.

Manufacturers of pharmaceuticals stand to benefit—or not to be harmed—thanks to the continuation of the ACA and Medicaid laws in their current forms. The more people who have health insurance generally, the more people who have coverage for prescription medications. Medical device makers, on the other hand, were counting on Graham-Cassidy to repeal the medical device tax that they believed hurt them. Though, they may have reason to hope that the tax will be repealed or at least delayed in other vehicles, as there are plenty of Democratic legislators who agree with Republicans that the tax ought to go.

Read the full advisory here.

After July 1, 2017, optometrists and ophthalmologists (“Ophthalmic Providers”) in Virginia will be able to practice through telehealth. Va. Code § 54.1-2400.01:2 permits Ophthalmic Providers to establish a bona fide provider-patient relationship “by an examination through face-to-face interactive, two-way, real-time communication” or through “store-and-forward technologies.” Licensed Ophthalmic Providers may establish a provider-patient relationship so long as the provider conforms to the in-person standard of care.  To the extent that an Ophthalmic Provider actually writes a prescription, the Ophthalmic Provider must also obtain an updated patient medical history and make a diagnosis at the time of prescribing.  However, like most telehealth laws in other states, the Virginia law prohibits issuing a prescription solely by use of an online questionnaire.

By comparison to other telehealth laws, the Virginia law is progressive not only because it permits Ophthalmic Providers to establish a valid provider-patient relationship through store-and-forward technologies, but that it addresses the need for telehealth laws that specifically apply to Ophthalmic Providers. As of July 1, Ophthalmic Providers in Virginia can begin prescribing eyeglasses or contact lenses using real time and store-and-forward telehealth modalities. Since Virginia already has remote prescribing and parity laws in place, Ophthalmic Providers should feel free to immediately begin using these technologies to prescribe in accordance with the new law.  While it is hard to say how many Ophthalmic Providers are ready to immediately incorporate these technologies into their practices, telehealth optometry will most certainly expand patient access to eye care services in Virginia.

This post was written with assistance from Lauren Farruggia, a 2017 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

Recently, Judge Robert T. Conrad, Jr. of the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina (Charlotte Division), rejected efforts by The Charlotte- Mecklenberg Hospital Authority, doing business as the Carolinas Health Care System (“CHS”), to dismiss, at the pleadings stage, a complaint filed by the United States’ Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, and the State of North Carolina, asserting that CHS’s anti-steering provisions in its payer contracts unreasonably restrain trade in violation of section 1 of the Sherman Act. Recognizing the Court’s limited review of preliminary motions, Judge Conrad, in the matter styled as United States of America et al v. The Charlotte-Mecklenberg Hospital Authority d/b/a Carolinas Health Care System, Civil Action No.3:16-cv-00311-RJC-DCK (W.D. N.C., Mar. 30,2017), ultimately concluded that the allegations of the Complaint, taken as true for purposes of ruling on the motion, asserted a claim that was “plausible,” meeting the pleading standards established by the Supreme Court in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544,570 (2007).

The complaint alleges that CHS is the largest hospital system in the Charlotte, North Carolina area, operating ten acute-care hospitals and garnering a market share of fifty percent (50%). CHS’s next closest competitor is alleged to have only half the number of acute-care hospitals, and less than half of CHS’s annual revenue. The complaint also alleges that “[a]n insurer selling health insurance plans to individuals and employees in the Charlotte area must have CHS as a participant in at least some of its provider networks, in order to have a viable health insurance business in the Charlotte area.” Based on these purported facts, the Complaint alleges that CHS maintains “market power” for the sale of acute care hospital services in the Charlotte area.

The complaint goes on to assert that CHS maintains anti-steering provisions in many of its payer contracts including those that collectively insure up to eighty-five percent of the insured residents in the Charlotte area. Furthermore, it is alleged that CHS is able to demand these provisions as a result of its market power.

Finally, the Complaint alleges that these anti-steering provisions impose an unreasonable restraint on competition. Among other things, these provisions have the effect of preventing payers from directing patients to lower cost, higher quality providers, and even prohibit payers from providing its enrollees with information about their health care options. The ultimate effect of these provisions is to allow CHS to maintain its dominant position in the market, and maintain supra competitive prices.

CHS filed an Answer to the Complaint, and a motion on the pleadings which is governed by the same standards as a motion to dismiss filed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12 (b) (6). The essence of CHS’s motion is that the Plaintiff’s allegations were conclusory, and, in particular, the Complaint lacked factual allegations that show “actual competitive harm” resulting from the anti-steering provisions. In addition, CHS argued that: the steering restrictions were beneficial and procompetitive; CHS’s prices were higher due to superior product and consumer loyalty; payers were still able to steer and no payer had ever asked to remove the steering provisions. CHS also relied upon the recently issued Second Circuit decision in United States v. American Express Co., 838 F. 3d 179 (2d. Cir 2016), which ultimately rejected a lower Court’s finding, after a bench trial, that similar steering provisions were unlawful.

Judge Conrad ultimately concluded that while many of the allegations in the Complaint were conclusory, and not factual, the Plaintiff had sufficiently alleged anticompetitive harm. In particular, the Complaint contains plausible allegations that CHS maintains market power, and that as a result of this market power CHS is able to force the anti-steering provisions on payers resulting in CHS’s ability to charge supra-competitive prices. Judge Conrad rejected CHS’s additional factual arguments concluding that these were not appropriate arguments to address on a preliminary motion.

Finally, Judge Conrad rejected the invitation to compare the case before him with that of United States v. American Express. In doing so, Judge Conrad noted: 1) he was not bound by a decision of the Second Circuit; 2) the health care industry is different from the credit card industry; and 3) the case before him was still in the preliminary stages while United States v. American Express was decided after discovery and a full trial on the merits.

Our colleagues Joshua A. Stein and Frank C. Morris, Jr., at Epstein Becker Green have a post on the Health Employment And Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers: “The U.S. Access-Board Releases Long-Awaited Final Accessible Medical Diagnostic Equipment Standards.”

Following is an excerpt:

As part of a flurry of activity in the final days of the Obama Administration, the U.S. the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the “Access Board”) has finally announced the release of its Accessibility Standards for Medical Diagnostic Equipment (the “MDE Standards”).  Published in the Federal Register on Monday, January 9, 2017, the MDE Standards are a set of design criteria intended to provide individuals with disabilities access to medical diagnostic equipment such as examination tables and chairs (including those used for dental or optical exams), weight scales, radiological equipment, mammography equipment and other equipment used by health professionals for diagnostic purposes. …

Read the full post here.

On Monday, January 23rd, Senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced the Patient Freedom Act of 2017 (“PFA”), the first of what may be many Republican Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) “replacement” alternatives. The PFA is notable for several reasons. It is the first replacement plan to be introduced in the 115th Congress, it is sponsored by Senators who are considered comparatively moderate on health issues, and thus its content may represent an opportunity for compromise in the future, and, perhaps most interestingly, does not actually repeal the ACA. The overarching feature of the PFA is that it allows states to control which course they chart for health reform.

The ACA: What Stays and What Goes  

If enacted, the PFA would eliminate the majority of the provisions contained in Title I of the ACA. This includes the individual and employer mandates, the community rating provision, essential benefits requirements, and the establishment of the health benefit exchanges. However, the ACA provisions the PFA retains are just as notable as the provisions it removes. The PFA maintains the bans on lifetime and annual coverage limits, maintains the ACA ban on coverage exclusions based on preexisting conditions, continues to permit dependents to remain on their parents’ plan until age 26, keeps in place the ACA non-discrimination requirements, and maintains the ACA mental health parity coverage requirements. The PFA also does not repeal any provisions outside of Title I, leaving many features in place, such as Medicaid expansion and Medicare prescription drug plan provisions.

State Options

The PFA would shift the decision of how to implement health reform to individual states. The PFA allows states to choose between three options: 1) maintain the current ACA model using subsidies and health benefit exchanges to provide insurance coverage; 2) enact a market-based option or “state alternative;” or 3) select to design its own health system without federal funding. If a state fails to select one of the options by a certain date they will be deemed to have selected the market based option.

Option 1: Keep the ACA

States that elect to continue to operate under the ACA will be treated as if the changes to Title I of the Act in the PFA were never enacted. This will allow states to maintain health benefits exchanges and for eligible enrollees to receive federal subsidies and cost sharing reductions to purchase coverage from qualified health plans (“QHPs”). However, States may see a reduction in the exchange subsidies and costs sharing reductions available to enrollee as the PFA includes an additional provision designed to align federal funding between ACA states and states that elect the new market-based approach.

Option 2: Market-Based Approach

The market-based approach, or “State Alternative” option, will allow states to essentially shift residents enrolled in QHPs and potentially Medicaid into a standard high-deductible health plan containing basic pharmaceutical coverage and some coverage for preventive care and free immunizations. Residents currently enrolled in QHPs will receive Roth health savings accounts (“HSAs”) funded through tax credits.  These tax credits will replace the advanced premium tax credits QHP-enrollees are currently eligible to receive with a tax credit that is similarly advanceable and refundable.  The tax credit is also adjustable based on the age, income, and geographic location of the enrollee.

States may also include the Medicaid expansion population under this market-based alternative, but only enrollees not otherwise eligible for Medicare coverage, and eligibility for federal Roth HSA contributions will be limited to those not enrolled in a federal healthcare or veterans benefit program. States can either administer the market-based solution themselves or they can allow the federal government to administer the system. The total amount of the tax credits available under the market based approach will be equal to 95 percent of the total projected ACA premium tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies that the state would have otherwise received.

What’s Next and What to Watch?

The PFA is the first of what may be many Republican plans to replace the ACA. Reports indicate other members of Congress, including Senator Rand Paul, are expected to release alternative plans in the near future. It is unlikely that any one plan will be enacted in the form that it is introduced. However, significant insight into what ultimate changes may occur can be gained by monitoring how stakeholders- such as members of Congress, the administration, and governors- respond to the various provisions contained in these proposals. Health care entities should closely monitor the provisions that appear to have support among the various stakeholders to ensure that there is sufficient time to react and adapt to the changing health care environment.

As the transition in Washington moves into high gear this month, it’s not just the new Administration and Congress that are putting in place plans for policy and legislation; stakeholders are busy creating agendas, too.

Many stakeholder agendas will seek to affect how government addresses such prominent health care issues as the Affordable Care Act, Medicare entitlements, fraud-and-abuse policies, FDA user fees, and drug pricing. There will be a myriad of stakeholder ideas, cutting a variety of directions, all framed with an eye to the new political terrain.

But whatever policies a stakeholder advocates, ideas must be translated into a form that that the political system can digest. For this to occur, an important technical conversion must take place; words must be conjured and organized so that desired policy can become legal reality.  This is no easy task, and stakeholders should proceed thoughtfully.

Here are five takeaways for making proposals concrete and workable:

1. Butterfly Effect

A “simple” contract (to buy a house, say) can end up getting pretty complicated, even when the stated rights and obligations apply to no more than two parties. In contrast, a policy proposal typically seeks to set arrangements for a broad array of parties (perhaps a whole economic sector) and thus will usually involve substantial complexity.

The large number of parties potentially affected means that even the most minor-seeming policy adjustment can have large, unintended, and unpredictable results – not dissimilar from how the proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wings can start the chain reaction that leads to a distant hurricane.

2. Pre-Drafting Steps

Taming the butterfly effect should begin before putting pen to paper. It starts with a clear view of the problem to be solved and the ways to solve it.  Notably, the legislative drafters available to Congress place some considerable emphasis on the steps that precede actual drafting.

For example, the House Legislative Counsel’s Office recommends use of a pre-drafting checklist that includes questions like these:  What is the planned policy’s scope (expressed as populations or subjects)?   Who will administer the policy?  Who will enforce it?  When should the policy take effect (and are transition rules needed)?  Each of these questions contains multiple sub-questions.

Similarly, the Senate Legislative Counsel’s Office points out that most legislated policies build on prior statutes. As such, it is important to know how new provisions will harmonize with — or will override — previously adopted language.  Making these judgments requires a solid grasp of existing legal authorities and ways these authorities have been interpreted.

3. Words on the Page

Translating concepts into words is a specialized task, for ultimately the words must be “right” – they must be technically sufficient to effectuate the policy intended.

It is not news that Congresses, Presidents, and courts sometimes have different views on the meaning of statutes, regulations, and other types of policy issuances. In theory, the drafting curative is to make the words so clear that only a single meaning is possible.  But realistically, legal contention often comes with the territory of a controversial policy, and so stakeholders should at a minimum avoid such unforced errors as these:

  • Obvious mistakes – e.g., purporting to amend a U.S. code title that has not been enacted into positive law;
  • Wrong law – e.g., confusing the statute that enacts new language with the statute that the new language amends;
  • Wrong time – e.g., getting the words right but putting them into effect for an unintended time period;
  • Imprecise labels – e.g., referring to concepts or parties via shorthand phrases similar to, but not identical to, defined terms; and
  • Vague references — e.g., omitting enough key details to confer unintended discretion on an agency or administrative official.

4. Document Silos

Today’s integrated world doesn’t look kindly on silos, but, in the specialized context of Washington policy development, they can be a helpful check on the temptation to combine technical drafting with political messaging.

The desire to combine these two forms of communication is understandable, for it is an appealing notion that policy proposals be “user friendly” so they can be quickly scanned for substantive gist. In fact, however, the practice is dilutive and dangerous; it can put the wrong words on the page and undermine policy intent.

A better course is for stakeholders to manage separately siloed sets of documents that, while consistent, operate at different levels of specificity. One silo should be reserved for the technically rigorous proposals that effect legal authority and a separate silo for “plain English” issue briefs, fact sheets, and other materials that summarize the authority.

5. Plug & Play

Washington policy debates are less often set battles, more often fast-moving skirmishes. Such places a premium on ability to adapt as new ideas emerge, political signals morph, and coalitions shift.  For the task of converting ideas into policies, there are at least two implications.

First, stakeholders should be prepared to think and draft in modules – in discrete chunks of policy that can be embedded in one or more larger proposals. In Congress, stakeholder-originated ideas are more likely to emerge as legislative amendments than as free-standing bills.

Second, stakeholders should be ready to iterate quickly as debate advances. Feedback from reviewers will often focus on proposal summaries because they are easier to read and understand.  But changes in response to comments must also be reflected in the technical proposals themselves.  Tight deadlines are the norm, so separately siloing the two types of documents (see above) will help speed an effective response when political opportunity strikes.