CMS Rule Reducing Medicare Payments for Off-Campus Hospital Based Clinics Vacated

by Paul L. Croce

In November 2018, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) issued a final rule (the “Rule”) reducing payments for evaluation and management services provided at off-campus hospital based clinics, to the same rates as when provided in a physician’s office.  The Rule, which CMS described as a method to control what it viewed as unnecessary increases in the volume of outpatient services at off-campus hospital based clinics, became effective on January 1, 2019.

Prior to adoption, the Rule went through the formal notice-and-comment rulemaking process during which CMS received nearly 3,000 comments. Many of the comments suggested that CMS lacked statutory authority to implement the Rule.  CMS considered and rejected those arguments.

Almost immediately following the publishing of the Rule, the American Hospital Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges and various hospital systems from across the country filed suit seeking to vacate the Rule.  The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and was captioned The American Hospital Association, et al. v. Azar, Case No. 1:18-CV-2841.

The plaintiffs in the case argued that, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1396l(t)(9)(A)-(B), if CMS wanted to reduce payment rates for a particular outpatient service, it should have changed the relative payment weights and adjustments through the annual review process in a budget neutral manner. The Rule did not take budget neutrality into account.

Conversely, CMS argued that it has authority to develop a “method” for controlling unnecessary increases in volume under 42 U.S.C. § 1396l(t)(2)(F), without regard for budget neutrality. CMS further argued that the term “method” is not explicitly defined in the statute, that its approach satisfied the generic definitions of the term and deference should be given to that approach.

The plaintiffs moved for summary judgment, and the Court addressed these issues in its September 17, 2019 opinion.  Therein, the Court reviewed the context of the statutory reference to “method” and found “[t]hat context does not make clear what a ‘method’ is, but it does make clear what a ‘method’ is not:  it is not a price setting tool, and the government’s effort to wield it in such a manner is manifestly inconsistent with the statutory scheme.”  Thus, the Court found the Rule was ultra vires, vacated the applicable portions of the Rule and remanded the matter for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

While the decision certainly benefits hospital systems across the country, this battle appears to be far from over.  Since the issuing of the Court’s opinion, CMS has filed a motion to modify the order to a remand without vacatur, or in the alternative, for the Court to stay the portion of its order vacating the Rule for sixty days to allow the Solicitor General time to determine whether to authorize an appeal.  That appeal is likely to be filed and the battle will wage on.