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38 hospitals sue HHS over site-neutral payment rule

Hospitals named in the suit include Vanderbilt Medical Center, Atrium Health, Rush University Medical Center, Ochsner Clinic Foundation, Montefiore.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor

A month and a half after several hospital advocacy groups joined together to sue the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services over it's finalized site-neutral payment policy, 38 hospitals have followed, filing suit against HHS Secretary Alex Azar for a policy they say will deprive hospitals of hundreds of millions of dollars and could compel them to cut patient services due to loss of reimbursement.

The complaint argues that medical services provided in hospital outpatient departments are more "resource-intensive"--and therefore more costly--than those performed in an independent physician's office. It also sharply criticized Secretary Azar, saying he "has blatantly disregarded a specific and unambiguous statutory directive, acted well beyond his authority and nullified that statutory exemption" that would have had hospital outpatient centers reimbursed for services at the higher grandfathered rate previously legislated.

The hospitals suing include Vanderbilt Medical Center, Atrium Health hospitals, Rush University Medical Center, Ochsner Clinic Foundation, Montefiore Health System and many others.

THE IMPACT

The outpatient prospective payment system seeks to equalize what physician offices and hospital outpatient departments are paid for certain clinical visits, a change that will be phased in over two years. The new rule cuts payments for hospital outpatient clinic visits at off-campus provider- based facilities in order to level them out against what is paid to physician offices. Half of the total reduction, $380 million, will take effect in 2019 and the remaining cuts will be phased the next year.

THE TREND

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 amended the Social Security Act such that Medicare pays the same rates for medical services regardless of whether they are provided in a physician's office or in an "off campus" hospital department. At the time, Congress provided an exemption from the rule for all off-campus hospital outpatient departments that were providing services before the enactment.

The AHA, in the suit they are part of, said the Azar's reversal on the grandfathered exemption exceeds the administration's legal authority. The AHA previously called the OPPS final rule  "unsupportable analyses and erroneous policy rationales," and said it will have "negative consequences" for patients, with those in rural and vulnerable communities getting hit especially hard. The AHA and other hospital associations are already challenging the 340B policy included in the current outpatient rule.

ON THE RECORD

"The Secretary's unlawful rate cut directly contravenes clear congressional directives and will impose significant harm on affected off-campus hospital outpatient departments and the patients they serve. Accordingly, this Court should declare the Secretary's Final Rule to be ultra vires and enjoin the agency from implementing any payment methodology other than OPPS rates for all E/M services provided by excepted off-campus PBDs," the complaint states.

Mark Polston, a partner with King & Spalding, the firm representing the plaintiffs: "Our clients' mission is to provide high-quality healthcare. They have relied for years upon their off-campus departments to expand access to care and bring hospital services directly to their communities, many of which are underserved by other providers. Congress preserved their ability to do that work when it excepted them from the changes contained in Section 603 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. But the Secretary overstepped his bounds when he took that away. We are asking the court to reinstate the decision Congress made to preserve our clients' ability to bring the best possible care to their patients." Mark Polston, a partner with King & Spalding, the firm representing the plaintiffs:

Twitter: @BethJSanborn
Email the writer: beth.sanborn@himssmedia.com

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