While the opioid crisis has inspired a wave of new legislation by Congress, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has continued to increase its own response to the prevalent rate of opioid-related drug crimes with a number of new initiatives.  On October 17th, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein recently delivered remarks at the America’s Health Insurance Plans 2018 National Conference on Medicaid and highlighted the Department’s continued determination to tackle the opioid crisis. Rosenstein’s remarks reiterated Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent statements on September 25th at the Office of Justice Programs’ National Institute of Justice Opioid Research where Sessions outlined the varying ways in which DOJ’s resources are being devoted to combating the “national public health emergency.” Both remarks demonstrate DOJ’s continued approach in using “every tool” available to increase prosecution of opioid-related crime – including not only traditional criminal prosecutions but also affirmative civil enforcement actions through the “first-ever civil injunctions under the Controlled Substances Act against doctors who allegedly prescribed opioids illegally” in August, while apparently diverting resources away from more traditional white-collar investigations and prosecutions. Rosenstein and Sessions both applauded the success of Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge, which focuses not on prosecuting drug users, but on “vigorously prosecuting” suppliers of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. Sessions in particular noted that shifting focus from users to suppliers, regardless of the quantity of drugs found at the time of arrest, has succeeded in reducing the amount of overdose deaths in Manatee County, Florida by half since last year. Hoping to replicate these results elsewhere, Sessions touted his placement of ten prosecutors who were sent to ten districts with high rates of drug-related deaths to implement the “no amount too small” strategy for prosecuting synthetic opioid trafficking. Sessions noted that this is in addition to the more than 300 new prosecutors he dispatched around the country, as well as the designation in each of the 93 U.S. Attorney’s Offices of an “Opioid Coordinator,” whose job it to “facilitate intake of cases involving prescription opioids, heroin, and fentanyl; and to convene a task force of federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement.”

Data analytics continues to be one of the most important tools in the Department’s toolbox. In his remarks, Sessions discussed the implementation of an innovative data analytics program that identifies opioid-related health care fraud in various “hot spot districts” around the country. The “Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit” mines “federal health care databases” and will help federal prosecutors efficiently identify “suspicious outliers,” such as doctors who prescribe opioids at a higher rate than their peers, doctors whose patients have died within sixty days of receiving an opioid prescription, and pharmacies dispensing a disproportionate amount of opioids. Indeed, in August, DOJ established the nation’s first opioid–focused Medicare Strike Force in Newark/Philadelphia region.

Rosenstein and Sessions also praised the Department’s overall health care fraud enforcement efforts and accomplishments to date, focusing on their view that “we lost proper emphasis on drug cases under the previous administration.” Rosenstein noted that since January 2017, DOJ “has charged more than 200 doctors and 220 other medical personnel for opioid-related crimes. The cases involved tens of millions of pills prescribed illegally.”

In a recent case of note, in a Southern Florida takedown this summer, which was part of the DOJ annual Health Care Fraud Takedown, four individuals were prosecuted in connection with kickbacks received from Smart Lab, LLC (“Smart Lab”), a clinical laboratory in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, which involved alcohol and drug addiction treatment centers. Last month, Smart Lab, the corporation’s Chief Executive and Chief Operating Officers, as well as the top sales representative plead guilty to a series of heath care fraud and money laundering schemes.

The charges alleged that hoping to monetize from the increased volume of opioid-related health care services, such as confirmatory urinary analysis testing, Smart Lab and its executives entered into employment agreements with “sales representatives” to solicit bodily fluid samples from various substance abuse treatment centers. Smart Lab then conducted expensive confirmatory and medically unnecessary drug testing on the samples and submitted the claim to insurance for reimbursement, including from federal health care programs. In exchange for the referrals, Smart Lab kicked back a portion of the reimbursement to the owners, operators, or clinicians of the substance abuse treatment centers. On November 1st, the two owners of Smart Lab, one of whom was a former pitcher for the Miami Marlins, were sentenced to 46 and 63 months in prison, respectively, for their involvement in the operation, repaid almost $3.8 million to defrauded insurers and received a total of $70,000 in fines. Smart Lab, as a corporation, was sentenced to three years’ probation. Smart Lab is just one example of many cases in which the Department is prosecuting both entities and individuals seeking to profit from the opioid crisis.

Beyond just prosecuting suppliers domestically, DOJ is also focusing on sending a strong warning message   to foreign synthetic opioid manufacturers. Indeed, the Department indicted two leaders of the Zheng drug trafficking organization this August, after it determined that the company was using shell companies to ship synthetic opioids and fentanyl analogues to over 25 countries and to 37 U.S. states.

In an effort to stop the supply and distribution of all kinds of opioids, DOJ is also focusing on targeting “web-based drug trafficking” of synthetic opioids. Rosenstein applauded the establishment of the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement Team, under which the FBI has “doubled its investment in the fight against online drug trafficking by devoting more than 50 Special Agents, Intelligence Analysts, and professional staff to help disrupt the sale of synthetic opioids.”

Overall, the message from Sessions and Rosenstein is clear: the DOJ is leveraging its resources to focus on opioid-related health care fraud and crimes. Accordingly, we can expect an increased rate of civil and criminal enforcement actions targeting opioids as DOJ continues to devote its focus towards combating the opioid crisis.

On October 24, 2018, President Trump signed sweeping bipartisan legislation to combat the opioid epidemic. The Substance Use–Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities Act, or the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act (“H.R. 6” or “the Law”), aims to “reduce access to the supply of opioids by expanding access to prevention, treatment, and recovery services.”[1] Congress has already appropriated $8.5 billion to implement this “landmark legislation” in 2018 and 2019.

In a series of Client Alerts, Epstein Becker Green will provide an overview of key components of H.R. 6, focusing on substantive requirements impacting an array of providers, manufacturers, health care professionals, community services organizations, and other health care entities. Forthcoming topics include the impact on treatment measures for opioid use disorders, addiction prevention measures, clarifications to U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration regulation and enforcement authority over opioid products, Medicare and Medicaid funding provisions, enhanced health care fraud protection, new data & reporting provisions, and telehealth requirements.

H.R. 6’s breadth requires impacted entities to take careful note of the Law’s requirements and varying effective dates.

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[1] Press Release, The White House, President Donald J. Trump Signed H.R. 6 into Law (Oct. 24, 2018), available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-signed-h-r-6-law/.

[2] Press Release, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, President Trump Signs Alexander Bill to Fight Opioid Crisis (Oct. 24), available at https://www.help.senate.gov/chair/newsroom/press/president-trump-signs-alexander-bill-to-fight-opioid-crisis.

On October 25, 2018, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) to solicit feedback on its newly proposed International Pricing Index (IPI) model for Medicare Part B drug reimbursement.  The IPI model will be tested by the CMS Innovation Center as a potential means to dismantle and replace the current buy-and-bill model and advance the Trump Administration’s agenda for drug pricing reform, as described in its May 2018 Blueprint to Lower Drug Prices and Reduce Out-of-Pocket Costs.  The framework of the IPI model is characterized by three components designed to achieve the following objectives:

  • Utilize private sector vendors to purchase and take title (but not necessarily possession) over single source drugs and biologicals (including biosimilars) and bill Medicare.  The vendors would then have flexibility to offer a variety of delivery options to ordering physicians.  This concept, which was inspired by Medicare Part D’s use of competing private-sector companies to facilitate the provision of Medicare-covered items and supplies, would leverage and improve upon the Competitive Acquisition Program (CAP) previously implemented in the mid-2000s.
  • Phase in, over a five-year period, a reduced Medicare payment for selected drugs based on a composite of international prices.  CMS would reimburse vendors for drugs purchased from manufacturers based on international pricing (except where the ASP is lower), as benchmarked against more than a dozen other nations with economies comparable to the United States that have significantly lower acquisition costs for physician-administered drugs.
  • Replace the percentage-based Part B add-on payment (i.e., ASP+6% (ASP+4.3% post-sequestration)) with a set payment amount, which would be based on 6% of a Part B drug’s historical drug costs.  Under the new model, physicians would continue to receive payment for drug administration.  Because physicians would be obtaining drugs from vendors, and no longer assuming financial risk, the add-on payment would be decreased to remove physicians’ incentive to prescribe higher cost drugs but be calibrated to hold providers harmless to the extent possible.

CMS plans to issue a proposed rule fully describing the IPI model in Spring 2019, with the goal of testing the model over a five-year period, from Spring 2020 to Spring 2025.  The IPI model would involve selected Part B-covered single source drugs and biologicals (including biosimilars) and would apply to all physician practices and hospital outpatient departments (HOPDs) in certain designated geographic areas.  Providers, beneficiaries, and drugs not included in the model will remain under the current Medicare Part B reimbursement system.

The ANPRM signals the Administration’s determination to dramatically overhaul the Medicare Part B drug reimbursement system through a new competitive acquisition program based on international pricing that would seek to reduce government and beneficiary costs while keeping providers revenue neutral.  While CMS appears committed to the general outlines of the IPI model, it has invited industry feedback on a wide range of matters pertaining to the configuration and details of each of the model’s components as well as certain quality measures that CMS will consider in assessing the impact of the model on beneficiary access and quality of care.  Stakeholders have until December 31, 2018 to submit comments on the ANPRM.

Epstein Becker Green (EBG) will be closely analyzing the proposed IPI model and related developments while working with its clients to assess its impact and formulate and advance new ideas to shape the model and its future implementation.

On October 10, 2018, President Donald Trump signed into law the “Know the Lowest Price Act” and the “Patients’ Right to Know Drug Prices Act,” which aim to improve consumer access to drug price information by banning gag clauses. The Trump administration previously announced its intention to enact this legislation in its May 2018 Blueprint to Lower Drug Prices and Reduce Out-of-Pocket Costs and will likely point to these new federal laws as affirmation of its commitment to drug pricing reform that favors patients and consumers.

These bills—one of which applies to Medicare and the other to commercial insurance plans—ban “gag order” clauses in contracts between pharmacies and pharmacy benefit managers (“PBMs”) that are designed to prevent pharmacists from disclosing to a patient at the pharmacy point of sale whether or not a drug’s cash price would be lower than the patient’s cost-sharing burden under his or her insurance plan. Pharmacies that had violated contractual gag orders have traditionally risked losing their network contracts with PBMs or faced other sanctions. Under these new federal laws, pharmacists are not required to disclose information about lower costs but cannot be contractually obligated to keep quiet regarding possible patient cost savings. The bill affecting Medicare beneficiaries will go into effect on January 1, 2020, while the bill banning “gag order” clauses for commercial insurance contracts took effect immediately upon signing by President Trump.

These new federal bans on pharmacy gag clauses represent a significant reform at the federal level and a victory for pharmacy interests, which have long decried these clauses as unfairly intruding into pharmacy practice. This federal reform has broad bipartisan support, as reflected by the Senate’s passage of the bills by a resounding vote of 98-2. Thus, in contrast to some of the other proposed reforms in the Trump administration’s Blueprint, including PBM fiduciary duties and restrictions on manufacturer rebates, the gag clause issue represents “low-hanging fruit” for the administration’s efforts at drug pricing reform.

While these new federal laws will ensure and promote transparency between pharmacists and patients and the potentially improved disclosure of pricing information, it is unclear whether these new federal laws will dramatically reduce costs for consumers. Some industry observers have questioned whether PBMs still routinely impose “gag order” clauses in pharmacy agreements and the extent to which they are actually enforced by the PBM and adhered to by a pharmacy. In a statement to CNN,[1] Mark Merritt, president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, said that “gag order” clauses are “very much an outlier.” Likewise, a spokesman for Express Scripts, the nation’s largest PBM, expressed support for the ban and noted that Express Scripts does not engage in this “anti-consumer practice.”[2] Additionally, many states already had passed their own laws banning “gag order” clauses in the past two years, meaning that many PBMs operating across state lines already had begun to reduce their use of gag orders in order to comply with these state laws.[3] Further, the legislation does not directly regulate the actual pricing of prescription drugs.

These new federal laws will provide the Trump administration and members of Congress with an important talking point during these 2018 midterm elections. In the meantime, industry observers are closely monitoring other developments relating to the Blueprint and whether additional, and perhaps more controversial, reforms will be implemented in the near future.

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[1] Vazquez, Maegan, Trump signs bills aimed at increasing drug price transparency, CNN (Oct. 10, 2018) https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/10/politics/drug-prices-legislation-signed-into-law-donald-trump/index.html.

[2] Firozi, Paulina, The Health 202: ‘Gag clauses’ mean you might be paying more for prescription drugs than you need to, Wash. Post (July 5, 2018) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/the-health-202/2018/07/05/the-health-202-gag-clauses-mean-you-might-be-paying-more-for-prescription-drugs-than-you-need-to/5b3a36ca1b326b3348addc4a/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f724b985ae49.

[3] See, e.g., Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. 24-a, § 4317(13); Va. Code Ann. § 38.2-3464.

Since the inauguration of President Trump, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has taken quite a few significant jabs and blows. When Congress failed to repeal the ACA, Congress instead eliminated the individual mandate penalty through the GOP tax bill. The individual mandate penalty was one of the main pillars of the ACA because it effectively widened the pool of participants who buy health insurance in order to keep costs down. While removal of this penalty hit the ACA where it hurt, the true threat to the stability of the ACA arose when the Trump Administration announced that it would no longer defend the ACA against a challenge filed by twenty states that believe the individual mandate itself is unconstitutional and that key parts of the act are invalid. What is the outlook for the ACA?

Congressional Efforts to Repeal

The House has voted to repeal or amend the ACA at least 50 times, but their efforts have never made it past the Senate. Despite this history of failure, there are still Republicans pushing for the repeal of the ACA.  On June 19, 2018, a coalition of conservatives released the outline of a new plan for repealing and replacing the ACA. The plan emphasizes the use of block grants, implementing risk pools, removing essential health benefits, and minimum loss ratio requirements.  As it stands, the plan will likely succumb to the fate of its predecessors.  Even if the bill passed the House, there are fewer Republicans in the Senate than the last time the repeal went to a vote. However, if after the upcoming mid-term elections the Republicans win Senate seats in Montana and Missouri and keep the majority in the House, the ACA could truly be in jeopardy.

Lawsuits

Meanwhile, twenty states have filed a lawsuit against the ACA’s individual mandate arguing that the elimination of the tax penalty without the elimination of the mandate is unconstitutional because it leaves the mandate without the exercise of Congress’s taxing power. The Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling may come back to haunt ACA proponents. The Supreme Court held that the individual mandate is constitutional because it constitutes a tax and that the ACA could not function without the mandate in place. Those filing suit argue that because the tax penalty is eliminated it is a tax-less mandate and thus unconstitutional because Congress cannot exercise its taxing power. As such, the mandate is such a key provision that the whole ACA should be thrown out if the provision cannot be severed.  In other words, the whole cannot exist without the entirety of its parts.

States Embrace Medicaid Expansion

Amid the slew of blows taken by the ACA, there is one provision left unscathed—Medicaid expansion.  The number of states expanding Medicaid continues to grow. For example, Virginia recently passed an expansion of Medicaid, and the Governor of Utah signed a Medicaid expansion bill.  Interestingly, some Republican-leaning states have embraced the expansion due in part to the current Administration’s support of work requirements. In fact, Maine is currently in a dispute with its Governor about the implementation of the expansion of Medicaid that was approved by Maine voters.

The Outlook

With the ACA constantly under attack from multiple vantage points, it is safe to say that the Act will have to fight to survive. Although heavily dependent on the November elections, it is possible that the ACA will survive additional congressional efforts to repeal the bill.  Further, the popularity of Medicaid expansion would make it difficult to repeal the bill in its entirety. More states are embracing Medicaid Expansion, and there is evidence available of the positive effects expansion has on access to care. The survival of the ACA really hinges on how U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor interprets the law as he presides over the twenty-state suit, especially considering that the Trump Administration has already stated that it does not intend to defend the ACA. Stakeholders will have wait patiently to see how the outcome of the upcoming elections and the pending lawsuit will affect the ACA’s future.

In yet another development on the fight to address the opioid epidemic, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Tuesday, April 17th that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) will issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) amending the controlled substance quota requirements in 21 C.F.R. Part 1303. The Proposed Rule was published in the Federal Register yesterday and seeks to limit manufacturers’ annual production of opioids in certain circumstances to “strengthen controls over diversion of controlled substances” and to “make other improvements in the quota management regulatory system for the production, manufacturing, and procurement of controlled substances.”[1]

Under the proposed rule, the DEA will consider the extent to which a drug is diverted for abuse when setting annual controlled substance production limits. If the DEA determines that a particular controlled substance or a particular company’s drugs are continuously diverted for misuse, the DEA would have the authority to reduce the allowable production amount for a given year. The objective is that the imposition of such limitations will “encourage vigilance on the part of opioid manufacturers” and incentivize them to take responsibility for how their drugs are used.

The proposed changes to 21 C.F.R. Part 1303 are fairly broad, but could lead to big changes in opioid manufacture if implemented. We have summarized the relevant changes below.

Section 1303.11: Aggregate Production Quotas

Section 1303.11 currently allows the DEA Administrator to use discretion in determining the quota of schedule I and II controlled substances for a given calendar year by weighing five factors, including total net disposal and net disposal trends, inventories and inventory trends, demand, and other factors that the DEA Administrator deems relevant. Now, the proposed rule seeks to add two additional factors to this list, including consideration of the extent to which a controlled substance is diverted, and consideration of U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and state data on legitimate and illegitimate controlled substance use. Notably, the proposed rule allows states to object to proposed, potentially excessive aggregate production quota and allows for a hearing when necessary to resolve an issue of material fact raised by a state’s objection.

Section 1303.12 and 1303.22: Procurement Quotas and Procedure for Applying for Individual Manufacturing Quotas

Sections 1303.12 and 13030.22 currently require controlled substance manufactures and individual manufacturing quota applicants to provide the DEA with its intended opioid purpose, the quantity desired, and the actual quantities used during the current and preceding two calendar years. The DEA Administrator uses this information to issue procurement quotas through 21 C.F.R. § 1303.12 and individual manufacturing quotas through 21 C.F.R. § 1303.22. The proposed rule’s amendments would explicitly state that the DEA Administrator may require additional information from both manufacturers and individual manufacturing quota applicants to help detect or prevent diversion. Such information may include customer identities and the amounts of the controlled substances sold to each customer. As noted, the DEA Administrator already can and does request additional information of this nature from current quota applicants. The proposed rule would only provide the DEA Administrator with express regulatory authority to require such information if needed.

Section 1303.13: Adjustments of Aggregate Production Quotas

Section 1303.13 allows the DEA administrator to increase or reduce the aggregate production quotas for basic classes of controlled substances at any time. The proposed rule would allow the DEA Administrator to weigh a controlled substance’s diversion potential, require transmission of adjustment notices and final adjustment orders to a state’s attorney general, and provide a hearing if necessary to resolve material factual issues raise by a state’s objection to a proposed, potentially excessive adjusted quota.

Section 1303.23: Procedures for Fixing Individual Manufacturing Quotas

The proposed rule seeks to amend Section 1303.23 to deem the extent and risk of diversion of controlled substances as relevant factors in the DEA Administrator’s decision to fix individual manufacturing quotas. According to the proposed rule, the DEA has always considered “all available information” in fixing and adjusting the aggregate production quota, or fixing an individual manufacturing quota for a controlled substance. As such, while the proposed rule’s amendment may require manufacturers to provide the DEA with additional information for consideration, it is not expected to have any adverse economic impact or consequences.

Section 1303.32: Purpose of Hearing 

Section 1303.32 currently grants the DEA Administrator to hold a hearing for the purpose of receiving factual evidence regarding issues related to a manufacturer’s aggregate production quota. The proposed rule would amend this section to conform to the amendments to sections 1303.11 and 1303.13 discussed herein, allowing the DEA Administrator to explicitly hold a hearing if he/she deems a hearing to be necessary under sections 1303.11(c) or 1303.13(c) based on a state’s objection to a proposed aggregate production quota.

Industry stakeholders will have an opportunity to submit comments for consideration by the DEA by May 4, 2018.

[1] DEA, NPRM 21 C.F.R. Part 1303 (Apr. 17, 2018).

Faced with the inability to repeal the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) outright, the Trump Administration and Congress have taken actions to provide more health insurance options for Americans.  Thus far, the Administration announced that they would no longer make cost sharing reduction (“CSR”) payments to insurers on the Exchanges and extended the time period in which short-term, limited-duration insurance (“STLDI”) plans could be offered.  Meanwhile, Congress removed the individual mandate in the 2017 tax bill. The Administration asserts that these efforts are all solutions geared toward helping more Americans receive care as premiums are rising.  A March 28, 2018 Gallup poll showing that health care costs are a higher concern for Americans, over the economy supports the Administration’s asserted justification. However, some states have recently taken their own steps to provide more health coverage options for their citizens while discounting the ACA, possibly reflecting a sense of dissatisfaction with the seemingly dragging feet of the Federal Government.

Idaho

The Governor of Idaho released an Executive Order on January 5, directing the Idaho Department of Insurance to approve options that follow all state-based requirements, even if not all ACA requirements are met, so long as the carrier offering the option also offered an exchange-certified alternative in Idaho and authorized the Director of the Department of Insurance to seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in conjunction with this Executive Order, if the Director believed it is appropriate or necessary.

Idaho officials then released Bulletin No. 18-01 on January 24, which provides new provisions for “state-based plans” for those individuals who do not qualify for premium subsidies under the ACA. Under Idaho’s proposal, insurers would be allowed to (1) sell plans with 50% higher premiums for people with pre-existing conditions; (2) exclude coverage for pre-existing conditions for people who had a gap in coverage; (3) vary premiums by 5-to-1 based on age; (4) exclude coverage for some ACA essential benefits such as maternity care; and (5) set a $1 million annual cap on benefits. All of these provisions are prohibited by the ACA.

In February, Idaho sought approval for the Bulletin by Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”); however, CMS denied the proposition. CMS Administrator Seema Verma wrote a letter stating that Idaho’s proposed requirements are not in compliance with the ACA and warned that, if Idaho did not enforce the ACA standards, CMS would be forced to step in and directly enforce the ACA protections in the Idaho market.  If any health insurance issuer that is subject to CMS’s enforcement authority fails to comply with the ACA requirements, it may be subject to civil monetary penalties for each violation of up to $100 each day, for each responsible entity, for each individual affected by the violation.  Despite the response from CMS, Idaho still seeks to expand coverage options for Idaho residents.

Iowa

In a similar fashion, Governor Kim Reynolds urged the Iowa legislature to make health insurance affordable for Iowa residents in the Condition of the State Address.  On April 2, the Governor signed into law a bill that allows small businesses or self-employed individuals to band together to buy coverage through association health plans that do not comply with ACA plans.  The legislation would allow insurers to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, create lifetime caps, and does not offer maternity care.   However, proponents of the bill emphasize that the coverage would not be considered insurance, but rather would simply function as a “health benefits plan”.  Proponents also note that these plans are cheaper alternatives for small employers or the self-employed.

Key Takeaways

States creating affordable health coverage with blatant disregard for the ACA is a note-worthy development in today’s tense healthcare climate. The outcome of the push of these initiatives by states is crucial because they are challenging the Administration’s willingness to enforce the ACA. Tolerance of such state plans would lead to cherry-picking, which would inevitably cause further destabilization of the market. Notably, CMS and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar have each emphasized upholding ACA as the law of the land. Stakeholders should pay attention to the outcome of these proposals because not only would the implementation of these plans destabilize markets, but the plans could also incentivize more states to follow suit and create their own plans.

On February 20th the Department of the Treasury, Department of Labor, and Department of Health and Human Services (together the “tri-agencies”) released a proposed rule which would alter how long short-term, limited-duration insurance (“STLDI”) plans could be offered. Under current rules the maximum duration that a STLDI plan can be offered is less than 3 months, if the proposed rule is enacted that period would be extended to less than 12 months.  The tri-agencies are accepting comments on the proposed rule until April 23rd.

What are short-term, limited-duration health insurance plans?

STLDI plans were designed to provide temporary coverage for consumers who otherwise could not access longer-term health insurance products (such as a consumer transitioning between jobs). Coverage offered by STLDI plans is not considered Minimum Essential Coverage and because STLDI plans do not meet the definition of “individual health insurance coverage” established by the Public Health Service Act they are exempted from many of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) requirements. Due to the fact that STLDI plans don’t have to comply with ACA requirements they commonly feature preexisting condition exclusions, annual and life time limits, feature higher cost-sharing requirements, and are medically underwritten they tend to be less expensive and attract younger, healthier enrollees.

Why are the regulations changing?

The proposed rule was issued in response to President Trump’s October 12, 2017 executive order which, among other things, instructed the tri-agencies to reconsider the Obama era rule which limited the time period STLDI plan could be offered to less than 3 months. The presumed intent of proposed rule is to foster more and less expensive health insurance options for individuals in the individual market.  However, the Obama administration initially issued the regulations limiting STLDI plans after observing that the plans were adversely impacting the marketplace risk pools, and the political motivation to adversely impact those risk pools and through them “Obamacare” can’t be fully discounted.

What is the likely impact?

The consensus among policy makers is that extending the duration of the coverage period that STLDI can be offered is likely to increase the number of consumers who elect to enroll in these plans over health insurance that constitutes Minimum Essential Coverage. The number of people enrolling in STLDI plans is likely to increase further in 2019 when consumers will no longer face a tax penalty for failing to maintain minimum essential coverage. One estimate suggests that if the proposed rule is enacted in 2019, 4.2 million consumers will enroll in the STLDI plans and 2.9 million fewer people will maintain Minimum Essential Coverage. While we don’t know the scope this would have on the risk pools in the individual market, it warrants monitoring by plans and providers moving forward.

On December 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to remove regulations that prohibit providers from blocking websites or charging for high quality service to access specific content. Many worry that allowing telecommunications companies to favor certain businesses will cause problems within the health care industry. Specifically, concerns have risen about the effect of the ruling on the progress of telemedicine and the role it plays in access to care. Experts worry that a tiered system in which service providers can charge more for speed connectivity can be detrimental to vulnerable populations.  Although the ramifications of the ruling are not entirely known, an exception for health care services would ensure that vulnerable populations can continue to gain access to care.

Telemedicine is often used as a tool to improve care by providing access to those who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to care. Through video consultation, patients have the ability to check-in with health care providers and access health specialists. Robust connectivity is vital for these services and community providers, and rural areas may lack the financial means to pay for optimal connectivity in a tiered framework.

In the past, the FCC recognized the importance of broadband connectivity to the health care industry. In 2015, the FCC‘s Open Internet Order acknowledged that health care is a specialized service that would be exempt from conduct based rules.  However, the new rule may undermine the 2015 Order and thus leave vulnerable populations at risk.

Moreover, the technology industry would likewise benefit from a health services exception. Innovation in health care delivery could be stifled by the FCC ruling and hurt the population as a whole. From tech start-ups to access-to-care advocates, various members of the health care ecosystem may need to anticipate building coalitions and urge the FCC to create an exception for health care services.

The state-action antitrust exemption grew out of the 1943 decision of Parker v. Brown, 317 U.S. 341 (1943), in which the Supreme Court explained that “nothing in the language of the Sherman Act or in its history suggests that its purpose was to restrain a state or its officers or agents from activities directed by its legislatures.”  And, relying on principles of federalism, the Supreme Court gave deference to the state as a sovereign body.

Subsequent decisions expanded the reach of state-action to state and local governmental agencies (including counties and municipalities), as well as private parties.  In California Retail Liquor Dealers Ass’n v. Midcal Aluminum, Inc., 445 U.S. 97 (1980), the Supreme Court held that the actions of state and local governmental agencies was exempt if they were undertaken pursuant to a clearly articulated state policy.  Also in Midcal, the Supreme Court ruled that private parties could take cover under this exemption if they acted pursuant to a clearly articulated state policy and were actively supervised.

However, the federal enforcement agencies have become increasingly frustrated with what, in their view, are the adverse competitive consequences of state-action, particularly as it relates to the health care industry. And, over the years they have actively pursued cases designed to shape and narrow this judicially created exemption.  For example, based on cases brought by the Federal Trade Commission, the Supreme Court clarified that only activity that is undertaken pursuant to a “clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed” state policy to displace competition, and is the “foreseeable result” of what the state authorized, can be covered by state-action, see FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health Sys., 568 U.S. 261 (2013), and, more recently, the Supreme Court agreed that even activities of a state agency (such as a state licensing board) must be actively supervised before state-action can apply if the agency is dominated by market participants, see N.C. State Bd. of Dental Exam’rs v. FTC, 135 S. Ct. 1101 (2015).

And the assault on state-action continues. Maureen K. Ohlhausen, the acting Chair of the Federal Trade Commission (until confirmation of Joseph Simon), in a recent speech given at the George Washington University Law School entitled Competition Policy at the FTC in the New Administration, indicated that the Commission will continue to “work to define and confine the anticompetitive effects that flow from state action.”  And earlier in November, the Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice jointly filed an amicus brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in the matter of Chamber of Commerce v. City of Seattle (Appeal No. 17-35640), seeking to convince the Court (in a case to which neither federal agency is a party) to apply an extremely narrow interpretation of conduct covered by a Seattle ordinance regulating the provision of taxi services.

The bottom line is that as a matter of stated policy, the federal antitrust enforcement agencies will continue their pursuit to limit application of the state-action exemption, and parties looking to rely on state-action to insulate their activity from antitrust challenge should take note. Attacks on other judicially created antitrust exemptions, and to the extent possible, Certificate of Need and Certificate of Public Advantage statutes, will also continue.